People desperate to find homes to buy or to rent in Kitimat ahead of the LNG industrial development are being targeted by online scam artists.
Kitimat realtor Graham Pitzel said while scamming prospective buyers and renters is not new, there has been an uptick in the number of incidents reported to him in the last two months.
“I had three people call me about one property I had listed. Another person let me know that a house I had for sale was being advertised for rent even though the owners were not trying to rent it out,” said Pitzel.
He said a common tactic used by the scammers to dupe unsuspecting rental hopefuls is to say the owners are from out of town and can’t get anyone to show the prospective tenants the property.
“They tell prospective tenants that if they send them the damage deposit, usually half a month’s rent, that they will hold it for them until they can get someone to show it to them. Generally, these properties are advertised for fairly low amounts in relation to other homes that are similar to get a lot of interest in them,” said Pitzel.
He said there are a number of very simple steps people can take to avoid falling victim to the scammers.
Prospective tenants looking for a place should always try to verify that the person on the phone or at the other end of the email is in fact the owner.
If prospective tenants know the property is for sale, they can contact the realtor that has it listed to confirm whether or not the seller is also looking for a tenant.
If the landlord is never available to meet the prospective tenant to view the property they need to double-check that the property is actually for rent before sending money to anyone.
“Most people that have a property for rent and are not in town either get a neighbour or friend to open the door for you to take a look, or have a professional management company looking after the property for them,” said Pitzel.
He said scammers favourite tactic is to download photos of properties off the realtors’ websites to use in the fake rental ad.
“Most importantly though – if the rental amount seems too good to be true, unfortunately, it is probably a scam.”
BC Northern Real Estate Board executive officer Alex Goseltine said that while realtors are desperate to protect their clients and prospective tenants from the scammers, there isn’t much they can do.
”Realtors can’t stop this – these people mostly operate from outside Canada. They’re criminals and they’re breaking every rule,” said Goseltine.
“Usually what you’re looking at unusually low market price and a rental property that is set up to look like a [Multiple Listing Service] listing with information that you normally don’t find on a rental property.”
She said the scammers get their information through a process calling scraping – they take what information and images are available from MLS listings for their own fake ads.
She said realtors have taken to using watermarks on the photos of the properties on their books that clearly indicate which realtor is listing the property.
“It’s a watermark we have put on there to track the scraping. Now what we see is are photos of properties appearing online with a little square box missing from the photo where they cut out the watermark.”
Once a prospective tenant contacts the scammers, they ask for the usual information a landlord would require and then go a step further – asking information that realtors would not ask.
“They say: ‘Here’s the contract. Fill in all this private information, pages of it,’” said Goseltine.
“However, a real landlord doesn’t ask for a whole bunch of information and talk about security deposits right off. They usually just tell you what’s available.”
She said a sure sign that a scam is in operation is that a prospective tenant will never actually get to view the property for a number of reasons – however, the truth is often that the home’s owner still lives there.
The properties are usually advertised significantly under market value – a property that would normally rent for $1,100 being for $700.
Goseltine’s advice – prospective tenants need to ensure that their personal information is protected.
“Legitimate realtors won’t ask you to fill in three pages and give you all your personal information, like your work history and your credit card numbers. That’s not what happens.”
She said the board receives complaints from across the north, from Williams Lake up to Prince George, and from east to west.
“People are losing hundreds of dollars, driving from across the country for these properties. It can happen anywhere – nowhere is safe,” warned Goseltine.