A new beginning: that's what our move to Hamilton was supposed to be. As the movers unloaded the last of our effects on that cool November day, my soon-to-be wife and I shared giddy visions of the great restaurants, inspiring nature trails and amazing people we'd be lucky enough to experience living in our new home.
(As former Toronto condo dwellers, the three bedrooms may have heightened the excitement.)
That's when I noticed a pick-up truck creep to a stop up front. Two gentlemen rolled down a window and looked the place up and down. Putting on a large grin, I turned my attention away from the chaos of plastic moving boxes and walked across my overgrown lawn to meet who I assumed were my new neighbours.
"Is this house vacant?" the elder asked, testily. Not the greeting I had anticipated, but I'll take it, I thought.
"Nope, the opposite! We just moved into the neighbourhood."
Consternation flickered across their faces. They explained: the house — our house, just barely off the market — was listed for rent on Craigslist, complete with accurate images from a realtor's website. An individual calling themselves "John Rempel" had cooked up a story claiming that they were out of town on business and needed someone to watch the property in the meantime. This eyebrow-raising tale came with a fanciful price tag to match — $800 a month — and this Rempel person expected a deposit on the home, sight unseen. Thankfully, the pair thought to check out the address before sending cash.
"I knew it seemed too good to be true," I heard one say. They drove off.
These scams tend to follow the same pattern — an out-of-town landlord, an eye-popping low price, a lack of in-person contact.
We asked Craigslist to remove the ad and thought that was that. Instead, what followed was an increasingly maddening — and alarming — series of visitors to our home.
The real victims of this situation.
A young family, hopeful for a place to raise their kiddos. An older couple who shared with us their email exchange with the mysterious Rempel. (We referred that to Hamilton Police Service.) A woman who claimed her home had burned down. Then my wife (yep, we got hitched during all this) answered the door to a pair who said they had been promised a move-in date — and were out $1,100.
See the scammer's emails below:
I think we received at least a dozen visits so far, and these victims aren't alone. A quick scan of recent headlines reveals this type of scam is a common occurrence, in Hamilton and cities across the GTA. All of Canada, really. And it can happen to anyone. These scams tend to follow the same pattern — an out-of-town landlord, an eye-popping low price, a lack of in-person contact. Hamilton's fraud department told me as much, adding that scammers may reside outside the city — or Canada — making them difficult or impossible to bring to justice. Our best bet? To wait until things "fizzle out."
There are a few ways to avoid getting caught up in rental fraud — at least, if you're the one looking for a place. Always ask for references and check them against online reviews. Never send money or give banking information to a stranger without signing a contract, and especially not without first viewing the unit. If a landlord pressures you to make a decision quickly or always finds excuses not to meet up, take those as a red flag.
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If you believe you're the victim of fraud, Consumer Protect Ontario's website says you should cut communication with the scammer and report the incident to local police with as much information as possible.
My own suggestion: keep the report number on hand to follow up — and possibly to share with any fellow victims. A police investigation is more likely to begin when someone who has actually lost money to the scam files a report. Simply having people drop by under fraudulent circumstances, as in our case, isn't a criminal offence.
As of this writing, unexpected visitors still appear in the dead of night. Some have circled our property, peeking into windows and violently pounding at our door. At times, it's made us feel unsafe in our own home. Despite that, I don't hold an ounce of ill will against the victims of this scam — that I reserve for Rempel alone.
But if you ever come across a rental ad that seems too good to be true, please think twice. It probably is. Take steps to protect yourself, and let's put these lowlifes out of business.
A quick thank you to investigators at Hamilton Police Service, the office of Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Green, and our quick-thinking real estate sales representative, Jeannie Crawford of Coldwell Banker Community Professionals, for their help.
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