It was there we found the apartment of our dreams. Or so one might think. However, it could easily have turned into a nightmare if I were of a less suspicious bent. Believe me when I tell you there are con-artists everywhere, and it's our disbelief that anything so unusual could happen to us that aids them in their victimization.
Imagine this, if you will:
2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, all appliances, all furniture, all utilities included. [Insert stunning description here along with 5 equally stunning photographs.] $819.00 per month.Contact is made via e-mail, and more photos are sent. They're not looking to make a profit, or turn it into a business, etc. They just want the apartment rented out to someone responsible so it's not sitting there empty. They will buy a plane ticket to come show you the place, but they need you to do them a favour and place an ad for their spouse's old apartment - apparently they are unable to do so because they are currently overseas and the classified ad website will not allow people overseas to place ads on the Canadian site. They dangle the carrot of removing the ad so that you'll be the only prospective tenant.
Being of a suspicious and cynical nature, I took a good look at the ad before I even contacted them the first time. I decided I might as well check it out. If it was a scam, no harm done. Being of that suspicious and cynical nature, I did not send them anything other than our names and phone number, and I wasn't about to send anyone any money, so I wasn't concerned.
The first response was a long e-mail, and asked us to let them know if we're interested. I said I was, and we wanted to view the place. I asked them to send the application, because I figured we could fill it out and give it to them when we saw the apartment. (I wasn't sending them anything with personal details by e-mail.) The 'application' was a few questions in their reply e-mail, along with a request for a picture (that was not mandatory). I replied vaguely, saying my daughter has a full-time job in a factory and I'm on disability. When I came to the question about references I said I would provide references when we viewed the place. With my name and references they would be able to obtain my current address, and it's more information than I want a stranger to have through these means.
No, I didn't send a picture. I couldn't see any valid reason why a prospective landlord would need a picture, and believe me when I say that sent up big red flags with sirens blaring and strobes flashing. My first thought was that the place might be real, but have hidden cameras for underground porn videos of the peeping Tom variety. So I figured if we viewed the place I'd be looking very carefully at mirror placement, and behind anything mounted on the walls.
The next e-mail was when they said they're more than happy to book a flight back here to show us the apartment, but they needed our help in placing an ad for his wife's old place so they can take care of that at the same time. Yeah...right. Just like the people who have fifteen million dollars waiting to be taken out of a bank account, but they need you to do it for them, and it doesn't look like they're asking much - and certainly nothing that will cost you anything - but it generally results in a person being stripped of their life savings.
My response was polite, because it's just barely possible the apartment is real. However, I made it clear that it was their responsibility to be available for viewings, and if they found it inconvenient to do so, they could hire a property management firm. They have the added benefit of being licensed, and can run credit checks for prospective tenants as well. Or they could book a whole bunch of viewings all at once. This person said in the last e-mail that 'he' had come up here once before and the person hadn't shown up - gee, people who break promises? Who'da thunkit? This is an old trick used by scammers who are trying to reassure someone by showing they know how that feels, and implies that they, themselves, would never do such a thing.
I also made it clear that, whatever they wrote in an e-mail, we did not know them. We were not going to place an ad for them which might result either in us being victimized or being accused of collaboration in a scheme meant to defraud others. I apologized, just in case they were on the level, but I very much doubt that they were.
After sending that last e-mail I started to do some research. I found an article in the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper from 2009. It details how a woman lost $1200 in almost identical circumstances. In her case the gentleman had relocated from Winnipeg to New Jersey, but was currently in London. She sent $800 for a month's rent, and $400 for a damage deposit. When she requested keys he demanded another $1200 before he was apparently willing to send them. Once the situation was investigated it was discovered that there was no one in the building by that name, and it was managed by a property management firm with no ties to this person. The police could do nothing. After all, she had sent her money out of the country.
Kijiji warns on every page that a person should never give money to someone they haven't met in person. Their classified ads are meant for person-to-person sales, whether it's an apartment or a bicycle. Near-identical ads for 'dream' apartments have appeared in major cities all over Canada, and I don't doubt that they appear in most other countries as well.
People want to believe they've found a place to live. It hits in a vulnerable area, especially during a time when it's difficult to find an apartment. In the last two and a half years since we moved into this apartment, rent prices have gone up considerably, and apartments are taken almost as soon as the ads appear. Then if you find yourself in a situation where you might not have a place to live in a couple of weeks, you really want to believe that this wonderful place is sitting there just for you. An answer to a prayer, basically. The thought of being homeless scares the crap out of pretty much anyone, and who can blame them?
Still, there are a few hard and fast rules out there if you don't want to be a victim. The biggest one is that you should never trust anyone without reason. I mean, geez people! Why would you send money to someone outside the country for a place you've never even been in? An apartment has to be viewed in person. I'm sorry, but that's the reality. Even real ads will often show an apartment that isn't the one that's available. Management companies have show suites. Even when you go to view an apartment, they often show one that has the same floor plan, but isn't the one you'll be renting. That's pretty standard for big buildings, so then you have to do a walk-through of your actual apartment to list any damage that's already there.
Trust is earned. It takes time to develop. Not everyone is trustworthy. In fact, a very large portion of the population cannot be trusted. I personally believe no one can be trusted for everything. Every human has flaws, and there are certain things each person can't be trusted with. It all depends on their personality type. Some can't be trusted to pay their bills exactly on time, even if they do eventually pay them. Some people don't do things they're supposed to do by the time they say they'll do them. Some people show up late. Everyone has flaws, and those are the things that can't be trusted in that person, but they may be completely trustworthy in every other way. Some people you could loan a million dollars to, and they would pay back every penny with interest, but you know they're always going to blab secrets.
It takes time to know the flaws of a person, and thereby know which things can be trusted about them, and which things can't. Trusting anyone without knowing them is ridiculous. The woman in the above-mentioned article said she trusted the person she sent money to because he claimed to be a Christian. Really? Wow. I can claim to be Jesus Christ, but that doesn't make it true. In fact, I would be less likely to trust someone because they're religious, than I would if they said they were atheists. I do not like organized religions, so I have a huge bias there.
Though I might vaguely feel sorry for anyone who has been ripped off, there's a larger part of me that thinks, "What the hell were you thinking?" Then my sympathy tends to dry up. When it's someone of diminished capacity who is scammed, I feel terrible for them, but with the general population I feel mostly disgusted that they're not using their critical thinking skills. Of course, lack of critical thinking is something that drives me crazy to begin with. It's the reason the vast majority of people believe what's reported on the news. In the US they're not obligated to tell the truth, yet people still believe what they're saying. In Canada that's against the CRTC regulations, and results in fines and other penalties, but that does not mean they don't unknowingly report a falsehood - because it's quite possible those who wrote the stories in the first place weren't using their critical thinking skills and didn't thoroughly investigate their sources. They might report the truth as they know it, but it's quite likely not the whole story.
My basic point is exactly what I said in my very first sentence. Too good to be true is always too good to be true. Follow your instincts, use your brain, question everything, and don't give people money for anything they're not handing to you right then and there. Even when you're doing business with people you know (perhaps especially when you know them), you don't pay them until they've given you what you're paying for - whether it's a service or an item. I offer website design and maintenance as a service, but I certainly don't expect anyone to pay me for something I haven't done yet. Some companies may require a deposit, but it's not necessary. Not when you can build the site and not post it, but still show your client what it will look like once it's published, and there are other ways web designers can protect themselves if their clients don't pay.
In all business dealings (and renting an apartment is a contract just like any other) both parties should be able to provide proof that they're on the level. An apartment is visible proof. If you don't see the place with your own eyes, there's a good possibility it doesn't exist. On the landlord's end of things, they're well within their rights to take a look at your identification and do a credit and reference check. Don't be afraid to offend someone. Honest people will understand and respect skepticism if you're polite about it. It's only the dishonest ones who will react defensively and get angry - most likely because they see their scam falling apart and realize the money they foresaw is slipping through their fingers.
In our case I would expect that this supposed landlord would respect the fact that I'm mature and responsible enough to be careful with regard to my personal information and my money. If I just gave out money to everyone, it would show an obvious lack or responsibility and maturity. Sadly, there will be people desperate enough and gullible enough, who so badly want to believe their dreams have come true, that they will fork over most of their savings to secure a non-existent apartment. I'm not immune to those feelings myself, and I hoped we weren't being scammed. I was polite in my last e-mail because a tiny part of me still hoped it was real. This was before I started researching rental scams and saw the various articles about the different ways people got fleeced. Then I started to see the similarities.
What's funny is that I'm a huge believer in doing things online. I buy groceries that way sometimes, and have them delivered. I shop online for other things, paying for my items electronically. I honestly do not have to leave the house if I don't want to, though you pay a little more sometimes for that privilege. Maybe it's being experienced in the ways of online retail that helps me weed out the scams. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that a ring I ordered from eBay was never delivered, and since I only paid about $10 for it I wasn't all that concerned, particularly since I'd ordered a bunch of other stuff at the same time and sort of forgot I was expecting it.
In fact we just ordered dinner online, but I'm pretty sure they're going to deliver it since we haven't given them any money yet.