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Rental scam hits where it hurts

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The place sounded good, great even... though not quite too good to be true.

In a city with a slim 1 per cent apartment vacancy rate, there it was: a cozy two-bedroom for rent on Young Street. It’s only $600 per month, a very bargain price, though not outrageously so for a cozy old place in a shabbier corner of the city. The pictures on Craigslist’s apartment rental directory looked lovely: warm old interior, remodelled bathroom.

On the hunt for a rental residence, I pounced on it, hoping to set up a tour. I planned to bring my chequebook and put a deposit on the spot, if it looked as good as the pics.

That’s when the, uh, "landlord" emailed me back.

Her name is Dr. Sarah Mark, she wrote. She’s a doctor for the Red Cross, and she just arrived in West Africa where she’ll be working with families impacted by HIV and AIDS. Since she and her husband will be working abroad for up to three years, they decided to rent out their house. "(I) am only willing to rent it out to someone who I can trust because I don’t want my property to be misused in my absence," she wrote. "I would like to have your word because I am doing this base (sic) on trust and putting everything in God (sic) hands."

Calling on the grace of the divine is certainly an odd way to handle property transactions.

So is this: "Please note this that you can’t go inside of our home because the property is locked and the keys are right here with us but feel free to go view the exterior and upon approval the keys/paperwork will be FedEx (sic) to you."


I called the Red Cross in Manitoba. Turns out there is no doctor named Sarah Mark who works for the Red Cross. "I can confirm that this person is not affiliated with the Red Cross and this issue has been forwarded to the authorities for their follow-up," a spokeswoman wrote.

Then I called the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba. Nope, no doctor by that name is -- or ever has been -- registered with them either.

In other words: this is a scam, pure and simple, and as Internet scams go, it’s not a bad one.

Unsoliticed emails announcing that the recipient can help transfer tens of millions of dollars if only they pay for the transfer costs only go so far. But this one pulls people in when they are searching for just this opportunity: desperate for any affordable housing, impressed by pictures of the nice suite, how many people would send along a damage deposit, thinking that their housing troubles were finally over?

"Unfortunately, this is becoming common," Gordon McIntyre from the Winnipeg Renter’s Network told me. The WRN has a warning on its site about the scam.

Pass this on to anyone you know searching for rental housing online. A city as troubled by housing stock pressure as Winnipeg is must be a ripe fruit indeed for these scammers. Even now, there must be someone -- or many someones -- in Winnipeg checking their mailbox, eager to see the keys that never will be FedExed.

I know what some of the comments are going to be, before they’re even made, because I’ve seen them on many other forums: somebody out there is thinking "if you’re dumb enough to send in a deposit on this, you deserve to get scammed."

That’s not just failing the empathy test, it’s also missing the point. Nobody deserves to be a victim of crime. Moreover, people in Winnipeg are desperate for affordable rental housing: when a reasonably attractive rental becomes available, that desperation can push people to take chances they ordinarily wouldn’t. And if you haven’t been taught to be as savvy about people preying on you via the Internet, you might think this polite, God-invoking doctor was the only chance you had this month to find an affordable home for yourself and your family.

In that situation, you might go for it too, hoping with all your might that you found a roof over your head that you could finally afford.

As for "Dr. Mark," she never replied to my second email, asking her for more information. Maybe she found another person who needed her "apartment" more than I.

I hope not. In the meantime, all I can do is write this blog, hoping others will pass it along to any friends, family, coworkers, neighbours or clients who may be looking for a new place.


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