International students vulnerable
30 Aug 2022
“Bottom line for tenants is that they should always meet a landlord,” said Ryan Schwerdtner of Viewit.ca.
Rental scams are increasing in lockstep with surging rents, with international students among the most common victims, according to data from Liv Strategies Inc., a Vancouver-based rental platform.
The scams typically involve ruses aimed at conning prospective tenants into wiring money before seeing a unit in person. The perpetrators might dangle a below-market rate, but insist they can’t meet in person. By the time would-be renters figure out the person with whom they’ve been corresponding isn’t a landlord, they have already surrendered first- and last-month’s rent. Foreign students, desperate to find places to live before arriving for the school year, have been particularly vulnerable.
“Current rental market conditions make a prime environment for scammers,” Liv Strategies founder Olivia Lam said in an email. “International students coming to Canada present a ‘trifecta’ of risk factors: young students, newcomers to Canada and first-time renters. This demographic is typically less familiar with Canada’s rental laws and a bit more desperate to find housing, on top of other stressors associated with moving to a new country.”
Lam’s company, which operates the website liv. rent, published a report earlier this month that found visits in June 2022 were up 47 per cent over June 2021. However, listings flagged as suspicious also jumped to 2.8 per cent of all posts compared to 0.8 per cent a year ago.
“There is an urgent need for Canada’s rental industry to take action to safeguard vulnerable renters,” the report concluded.
For years, Canada’s housing affordability crisis has been dominated by the cost of buying homes in the country’s biggest cities. More recently, rental affordability has also sparked concern, as rising interest rates have deterred buyers, creating more competition for rental units, according to Ben Myers, president of Bullpen Research & Consulting.
Statistics Canada data for July shows that rent increased 4.9 per cent from a year earlier, compared with a 4.3-per-cent year-over-year increase in June. The Agency attributed the faster price growth in its rent index to accelerations in Ontario and Alberta. The website Rentals.ca, meanwhile, reported in August that its data showed Nova Scotia rents increased by 22 per cent while B.C. and Ontario rose 15-16 per cent on a year-over-year basis in July.
The average condo rental price in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, hit a record high of $2,533 in the second quarter, according to Urbanation Inc. as demand continued to outstrip supply. British Columbia also experienced significant increases in average monthly rent for both one and two-bedroom condo units, at 23 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.
Robert Patterson, a lawyer at the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre (TRAC), a non-profit that provides renters in British Columbia with free legal advice, said a number of tenants have called with questions, wondering if they are being scammed and what they can do.
“These scams are particularly targeted at people who are moving to a new city or a new community because those people often won’t have a way to check out (the property) ahead of time,” said Patterson, who advises renters in such a situation to make an extra effort to have a friend or family member investigate a listing on their behalf. “If not, there are so many apps and other platforms where you can hire people to do little odd jobs for you. But essentially, hire someone to do a walkthrough for you.”
For her part, Lam said honest landlords should make an effort to crowd out the scammers by providing identity verification, offering land title documents, or taking other steps that promote transparency.
Ryan Schwerdtner, managing director of rental website Viewit.ca, said the company has been sending photographers out to shoot the properties rented on the site since its inception 21 years ago. When photographs are provided by the listing agent or landlord, the company’s staffers have been trained to spot red flags, such as the use of obvious stock photographs, international phone numbers and offers that are too good to be true.
“Bottom line for tenants is that they should always meet a landlord,” Schwerdtner said. “Visit the property, and be nervous of ‘out of town’ communication and ‘lockbox keys’ or not being able to talk on the phone. Not to mention people that are only interested in getting money/deposit and not spending any time vetting potential tenants and their references.”