Beware of rental scams in Hamilton

Getting caught up in a rental fraud is a frustrating experience

A new beginning: that’s what our move to Hamilton was supposed to be. As the movers unloaded the last of our effects on that cool November day, my soon-to-be wife and I shared giddy visions of the great restaurants, inspiring nature trails and amazing people we’d be lucky enough to experience living in our new home.

That’s when I noticed a pickup truck creep to a stop up front. Two gentlemen rolled down a window and looked the place up and down. Putting on a large grin, I turned my attention away from the chaos of plastic moving boxes and walked across my overgrown lawn to meet who I assumed were my new neighbours.

“Is this house vacant?” the elder asked, testily. Not the greeting I had anticipated, but I’ll take it, I thought.

“Nope, the opposite! We just moved into the neighbourhood.”

Consternation flickered across their faces. They explained: the house — our house, just barely off the market — was listed for rent on Craigslist, complete with accurate images from a realtor’s website. An individual calling themselves “John Rempel” had cooked up a story claiming that they were out of town on business and needed someone to watch the property in the meantime. This eyebrow-raising tale came with a fanciful price tag to match — $800 a month — and this Rempel person expected a deposit on the home, sight unseen. Thankfully, the pair thought to check out the address before sending cash.

“I knew it seemed too good to be true,” I heard one say. They drove off.

We asked Craigslist to remove the ad and thought that was that. Instead, what followed was an increasingly maddening — and alarming — series of visitors to our home.

A young family, hopeful for a place to raise their kiddos. An older couple who shared with us their email exchange with the mysterious Rempel. (We referred that to Hamilton Police Service.) A woman who claimed her home had burned down. Then my wife (yep, we got hitched during all this) answered the door to a pair who said they had been promised a move-in date — and were out $1,100.

I think we’ve received at least a dozen visits so far, and these victims aren’t alone. A quick scan of recent headlines reveals this type of scam is a common occurrence, in Hamilton and cities across the GTA. All of Canada, really. And it can happen to anyone. These scams tend to follow the same pattern — an out-of-town landlord, an eye-popping low price, a lack of in-person contact. Hamilton’s fraud department told me as much, adding that scammers may reside outside the city — or Canada — making them difficult or impossible to bring to justice. Our best bet? To wait until things “fizzle out.”

There are a few ways to avoid getting caught up in rental fraud — at least, if you’re the one looking for a place. Always ask for references and check them against online reviews. Never send money or give banking information to a stranger without signing a contract, and especially not without first viewing the unit. If a landlord pressures you to make a decision quickly or always finds excuses not to meet up, take those as a red flag.

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