02/04/2014 09:20 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Apartment hunters targeted by new online scam

A new scam is targeting apartment hunters, and dozens of Canadians may have been defrauded in the last few weeks, a CBC News investigation has found.

The scam always involves a high-end property with a very low rent, and an owner who is overseas.  

Wesley-Anne Rodrigues, 27, wanted to move out of her parent's home in Toronto. She thought she was renting a studio apartment at the Maple Leaf Square complex for $800.

But after she wired the money plus a damage deposit, all totalling $1,400, the lease and keys were never delivered. 

Rodrigues says she even spoke with the landlord, who claimed to be David Eisler. He sent a photo of his passport to assure her he was a Canadian.

"I lost $1,400," she said. "But more than just losing the money, I just thought it was important to tell other people about it, because it was such a well-orchestrated scam that anybody could fall for."

Legitimate company used as cover

Rodrigues says she believed the scam, because she was sent invoices with letterhead from a large rental management company.

"He was misrepresenting an actual company called Rentmatic. which is kind of why I agreed to it, because I checked out Rentmatic and this is an actual legit business."

But Rentmatic told CBC it doesn't operate in Canada and never uses wire transfers. The San Francisco-based company says it has been flooded with inquiries from Canadian victims. 

Eisler has been using a a fake Rentmatic email. The same passport photo he sent Rodriguez surfaced this week in Vancouver under the name David Dorner.

Dorner claimed to be a civil engineer in London when he tried to rent a one-bedroom downtown condo to a CBC producer. He sent photos of an immaculate-looking apartment that he said was Unit 302.

CBC visited the building on Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver. But Unit 302 doesn't exist. The residential apartments start on the fifth floor.

When reached by CBC News, Dorner said, "It did exist. Don't worry about this."

Too good to be true

Tom Durning, a Vancouver tenants rights advocate who examined the photos of the fake apartment, says apartment hunters must watch for red flags, and a rent listed well below market value is cause for suspicion.

"A condo in that area would probably go from anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000, he said.

"You're half the price. I mean, look, you're right downtown, you're [near] bus loops. You're 20 minutes from the beach. If it's too good to be true; that's the old dictum, it usually is."

He believes this scam is specifically targeting renters whose first language is not English.

"What I do worry is that with 100,000 foreign students in the Lower Mainland, in the majority of Vancouver, they may fall for these things." said Durning, who advises renters never to wire money or rent any home they have not seen in person.

A website that tracks online scams called Con Warner says the thieves in this scheme are sophisticated, and dozens of Canadians have been tricked by ads on both Craigslist and Kijiji.

Another man named Andrew Willis tried to rent a Richmond, B.C., river-front apartment for just $500 a month. He provided an American passport and claimed he had lived in the apartment, but was now living overseas.

But CBC News learned the apartment is not actually for rent and Willis doesn't own it. The condo is for sale and it appears he stole the photos from a local real estate agent.     

When reached by CBC News in Ukraine, Willis insisted there was nothing to worry about and that the keys would arrive soon after he was paid through Western Union.

The apartment he claimed to own is located on the Fraser River near the Olympic Oval and the Vancouver airport. When asked if he could name a single local landmark nearby, Willis hung up the phone.