Con artists take advantage of coronavirus pandemic to scam renters
The Better Business Bureau says renters must always take caution when they're told to pay deposits via wire transfers or gift cards. (File)
CALGARY -- There's a new twist to a common rental scheme, the Better Business Bureau says.
This time, fraudsters are using the coronavirus, along with the restrictions associated with the illness, in order to convince victims to fall for their ploy.
What's happening is scammers are finding genuine ads posted on a number of popular online marketplace websites and creating copies of them for their own purposes.
Once the replies start coming in, the fraudsters tell the unwitting victims they aren't able to meet them in person because of COVID-19 and suggests the potential renter conduct an inspection from the outside.
If the victim is still following along with the scheme, the scammer then requests they send money for the first month's rent or a security deposit. When it comes to signing a lease agreement, arrangements are made to complete it at a later date.
As soon as the payment is made, the scammers disappear and stop all contact.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says there haven't been many reports of this type of scam occurring in Alberta, but assure those looking for places to live that it is something to worry about.
"We anticipate this could be a new scam trend and are urging consumers to be on the lookout. In 2019, more than five million people across North America lost over $500 to rental scams, and with COVID-19 adding further opportunities for scammers, this could lead to a spiral in reports across Canada," said Shawna-Kay Thomas, communications specialist with the BBB, in a release.
Websites that post rental ads do offer some help in preventing fraud on their websites, the BBB says.
Craigslist screens potential rental listings before they are posted and after they have gone live while Kijiji uses algorithms to stop scammers from opening accounts and filters and removes the ads they post.
"Facebook Marketplace says they proactively view listings for a wide range of scam behaviours before they are listed and reports of scams are investigated and actions taken. Additionally, each listing has a drop-down menu in the upper right hand corner with options that allow viewers to report it as a scam," the agency says in a release.
However, the best protection against falling victim to rental scams and other schemes is to be informed.
The BBB offers the following advice to consumers:
- Never send money to anyone you haven't met in person – you should be able to inspect the property yourself and always be wary of the authenticity of landlords who request rents be paid in wire transfers or gift cards
- Conduct research online about properties – a simple web search should tell you a number of important things about a property you are looking to rent, including the people who are trying to rent it
- Watch for duplicate ads – some websites, such as searchcraigslist.org, offer services that scour the online listing for certain keywords to reveal if the advertisement has been copied anywhere else
- If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't good – renters may also be roped into scams that offer an incredibly good deal on a property, but those ads are more often than not complete frauds
Another scheme fraudsters are using to mask their movements during the pandemic is offering online videos of rentals instead of in-person viewings. The BBB says Albertans need to be aware of that trick and insist that if a landlord wants to rent out their property, they must allow visual inspections.
"Ask to get in. If you can't, stay away, as the video could easily have been stolen from another website."