With a horde of scam listings for apartments, houses and vacation properties appearing online, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) is urging the public to watch out for a COVID-19 twist on common rental frauds.
According to a BBB press release, fraudsters are searching for information about legitimate rental or sale properties on specialty websites, then posing as the owners by copying the ads and reposting them on a different platform such as Craigslist, Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace.
“In order to attract interest, the rent amount for the property is usually below market price,“ the release stated.
When consumers contact the scammer, they are invited to see the apartment or house, but are informed that due to COVID-19 restrictions they are unable to meet in person for a viewing. However, the scammer encourages the potential renter to visit the property and do an inspection from outside.
“If they wish to proceed with the rental, the scammer tells them to make a payment online for the first month's rent or a security deposit,“ the release stated. “The scammer also promises to make arrangements to sign the lease agreement once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.“
Victims are urged to pay the deposit as soon as possible to secure the rental, according to the release. In several BBB Scam Tracker reports, victims were asked to make an initial deposit by wiring money through MoneyGram or Western Union. Alternatively, payment was also accepted using a money order, cashier's cheque or a cash app.
“An advertised rental may seem like the perfect fit for you but it may be a scam,” said Shawna-Kay Thomas, a communications specialist with BBB. “While we have not received any COVID-19 rental scam reports for [Alberta], we anticipate this could be a new scam trend and are urging consumers to be on the lookout.“
More than five million people across North America lost over $500 to rental scams in 2019, Thomas said, and with COVID-19 adding further opportunities for scammers, “this could lead to a spiral in reports across Canada.”
To avoid falling victim to a rental scam during the COVID-19 pandemic, BBB provided several tips to prospective renters.
“Avoid making payments to a landlord who you have never met in person,“ the release stated. “You should be able to inspect the property yourself to determine the authenticity of the offer. Be especially wary if the alleged owner or property manager wants money through Western Union, MoneyGram, or a gift card.“
Other tips include searching the person listing the property, or searching the property in question on other websites.
“A simple review can reveal a lot of vital information about the property, the landlord or real estate agent in charge of it,“ the release stated. “Does the property exist at that address? Does the same photo appear at different locations? To aid your research, copy the photos in the post and use Google Image Search or tineye.com to check for multiple listings. Also search using an interesting phrase in the description.“
According to BBB, duplicate ads can be searched on Craigslist.
“People can do a search for an interesting or unusual term used in the description of a rental, or they can search for the picture of the unit,“ the release stated. “If the same rental is advertised in many different locations, you can be sure it is a scam.“
BBB said to avoid any unrealistic promotions, offers or rentals that are advertised at well-below market rates, as this is a classic way to lure in victims. Virtual tours should also be avoided.