How can renters and landlords protect themselves from scams?

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How can renters and landlords protect themselves from scams?


As part of a series, the Star is answering common questions about renting in Toronto. Do you have questions that you want us to answer? Email the Star at renterFAQ@thestar.ca.

The question:

You’ve heard the stories. Prospective renters send a deposit for an apartment only to have the landlord disappear. Landlords rent to someone they think will live in their unit only to see it listed on Airbnb.

In Toronto’s tough rental market, how can renters and landlords make sure their counterparts have good intentions, and protect themselves from scams?

The answer:

Renters

There are a number of signs that should raise red flags when browsing ads or talking to a prospective landlord. The first and most common is a gut feeling, says Dania Majid, a staff lawyer for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

“It could be that it’s too good to be true, that the apartment looks really great, it’s in a really great location but the rent is less than what will be asked in that area. Anything that seems too good to be true can trigger that feeling,” she said.

If the photos of the apartment look familiar, that could be a sign someone is stealing them from legitimate ads. Scammers may also ask tenants for private information, such as their social insurance number, she said. The latter could lead to identity theft.

Another common scam includes asking for money before the prospective tenant has visited the apartment.

“When they talk about wire transfers, sending money in advance in order to be able to see the unit, that’s usually the big red flag,” Majid said. “It’s usually followed or accompanied by a really sad story about the landlord. Someone has passed away and they’re overseas dealing with that issue, or this job came up last minute and they have to leave the country on very short notice so they have to get rid of their unit or sublet.”

Prospective tenants should never send wire transfers until they’ve signed a contract, ideally face to face, she said.

Tenants can also protect themselves by making sure to get everything in writing, says George Brown, president of the Ontario Paralegal Association. Never put down a deposit without getting a receipt, since if you get scammed, you won’t be able to prove you sent the money. That’s why it’s also a bad idea to pay your rent in cash.

He also said you can verify if the person you’re dealing with is truly the landlord by checking at city hall.

“Go to the tax assessment department and you can check on the computer, punch in the address and you can see the name of the owner,” Brown said. This way, you can cross-reference the record with your landlord’s name to make sure everything checks out.

If you’ve been scammed, Brown says there’s two routes you can take. You can file a police report for fraud, but you may also be able to get your money back through the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). In the instance a landlord rents to a new tenant and refuses to return your money, they can’t justify keeping last month’s rent.

Landlords

Scams can also go both ways, and they can be trickier for landlords to catch considering there’s a limit to how much they can monitor their properties, Brown said.

A person could sign a lease, decide not to live in the unit, and pretend to be the landlord themselves, renting the place at a higher price to turn a profit. They might look for tenants or upsell the place on Airbnb, and the latter is becoming “very common,” Brown said.

“If the person is making a profit off the rent, then that’s an illegal act, which would give the landlord the option of issuing an N6 (form), an immediate termination.”

Even if they put their place on Airbnb and don’t turn a profit, the landlord still has grounds to ask the lease be terminated at the LTB — unless the lease includes a clause permitting the tenant to rent to a third party.

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“They could send an N5 notice for termination, for interference of the landlord’s reasonable enjoyment, because that person is exposing the landlord to someone the landlord hasn’t rented to,” he said.

Once a landlord has discovered an unauthorized tenant they have 60 days to issue a form demanding they leave.

“If the landlord finds out about the occupant and 60 days pass before the landlord takes any action, the landlord adopts the unauthorized occupant, they become the tenant,” he said. “That’s why it’s advised landlords routinely check their properties to see who’s living there.”

Miriam Lafontaine
Margaryta Ignatenko

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