A few years ago, someone moving to Victoria for a job opportunity set their sights on a temporary rental property in Sidney.
But rather than settling into their temporary new digs as they eased into their new job, they wound up living in a hotel because the keys never arrived, even though money had been exchanged.
The case was brought to the attention of Victoria police Const. Scott Buckler, who was contacted by an Eastern European authority, advising him about the fraudster with the short-term rental property scam.
Working in the financial crimes division, Buckler has come across two different scams in the city involving vacation or short-term rentals.
The first involves fraudsters approaching people who’ve posted their rental suites on online classified sites such as Craigslist or Used.ca, then approached by someone pretending to be an international business person coming to Victoria and in need of a place to rent.
A common story, noted Buckler, is the person only has a cheque for a certain amount of money, so they urge the potential landlord to cash it, take out the first months rent and damage deposit, then write a cheque back for the remaining funds. The cheque, however, typically bounces a few weeks later when the legitimate remaining funds from the landlord are already sent in the mail.
Another scam Buckler has seen starts on legitimate vacation rental sites, such as VRBO or Airbnb. In these cases, the fraudster will use stock photos of a property from Google maps and put a low price on it to draw people in. Eventually money for the property is asked to be transferred outside of the Airbnb protocol, but keys to the vacation home never arrive.
“This one I’ve seen a few times,” said Buckler, noting vacation rentals scams still aren’t very common in Victoria, but he suspects many don’t get reported to police.
“Your vacation rentals, they are not local people so they may not necessarily report it to their local police department because they’re not from here. They just let it go, they kind of feel embarrassed or ashamed because they’re duped $500 and leave it at that.”
Investigating the cases that do get reported can be difficult since the fraudsters can live anywhere. Buckler wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an organized group that has fraudsters with multiple pictures of fake properties throughout cities in Canada and the U.S., dangling a worm to see who’ll bite.
The general rule to protect yourself against such scams, noted Buckler, is to use the old saying, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.
Used.ca doesn’t come across many vacation rental scams on its site, but has seen an increase in general rental scams in the city. Before anything goes live, a team moderates the ads, reviewing them and looking for anything suspicious. Like vacation rentals, Lacey Sheardown, president and director of marketing for Used.ca, said the price for general rentals is considerably lower than other similar properties. The potential landlord typically says they aren’t in town so they can’t show the property, but can send the keys if a deposit is sent.
“There should be no money exchanged beforehand,” said Sheardown, noting some scammers will copy legitimate ads on Used.ca and post them on other classified sites.
From January 2014 to December 2016, the Government of Canada estimated Canadians lost more than $290 million to fraudsters using various techniques by telephone, emails, social media and in person.
In 2016 alone, online scams accounted for more than 20,000 complaints and more than $40 million in losses by Canadians. However, it’s estimated that only about five per cent of fraud gets reported to authorities.
For more information on fighting fraud visit vicpd.ca/fraud or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at antifraudcentre.ca.