A Vancouver woman and her two roommates decided to take matters into their own hands after discovering they had been victims of a sophisticated rental scam at work in the city.
The scam — where prospective tenants pay for rental units that turn out to be not available — was first reported by CBC News earlier this month.
Linda Tran, her boyfriend and a roommate thought they'd found the perfect Yaletown condo at 918 Cooperage Way, after seeing photos listed on Craigslist by a company called Pacific Luxury Rentals.
But after paying $8,250 (first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit), they became suspicious when they contacted the building concierge to arrange their move and were told the unit was for sale, not for rent.
'Adrenalin and sheer panic'
"You’re angry, you feel dumb. You can't believe this is happening," says Tran. "But it was adrenalin and sheer panic — we have to vacate our old place … We have no place to live now.
"Our thought process was: we need to get our money back and find out who these people are."
They contacted a man who claimed to be Edward Young, a sales executive with Pacific Luxury Rentals, and said they needed to see the unit one more time to take measurements.
Once inside the unit, they told him that they knew they were being scammed, and that police were on the way.
"You won’t even get out of here because they're downstairs with the concierge right now. They’re the ones who called the cops for us," Tran’s boyfriend is heard saying on an iPhone video that captured the incident.
Tran then asked to see the man’s wallet. The man resisted and accused them of robbing him.
"I'm not robbing you. This is not our place. You're robbing us," said Tran's boyfriend on the video.
"We just wanted our money back," says Tran. "We wanted to know his real name — we actually found a wallet on him and there were several pieces of ID, all different names and stuff."
Tran says they also found several bank statements, listing balances of more than $200,000.
When police arrived, Tran says the suspect told police he knew nothing of a scam, and was only hired to show the units.
"At no point did he admit anything — he just kept saying he didn`t know," says Tran.
Police arrested the suspect, but no charges have been laid. Tran says the police gave the three vigilantes a lecture about their actions, and told them they were lucky not to be charged with unlawful confinement.
Part of a wider scam
Tran and her friends confronted the suspect on Nov. 26, 2014, the same week several other victims lost thousands of dollars after viewing a $3,000,000 Shaw Tower condo.
Two victims who each lost $26,000 told CBC News that the man in Tran’s video is the same man who showed them the Shaw Tower unit. He was also video-recorded at one of those showings.
The victims all report that the Pacific Luxury Rentals office — listed on its website as on Georgia Street — had a female receptionist who answered the phone and a manager with a British accent.
The website that featured half a dozen properties in several luxury buildings in Vancouver disappeared two days before Tran was supposed to move in.
Tran says the company was very convincing.
"They had the lease agreement, they check references, the number went to a receptionist. … They acted like they had several agents running around showing properties. It sounded very real."
All the victims deposited large sums in the same Bank of Montreal account at a West Vancouver branch.
Bank of Montreal spokesman Ralph Marranca says they "are assisting law enforcement with their ongoing investigation."
He would not answer questions about how the suspects obtained bank accounts.
'A complex investigation'
Police told CBC News the accounts were fraudulently obtained and drained by an individual with a false identity.
Tom Durning of the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre says this scam is concerning.
"Tenants usually don't have as much money as home owners do, and for them to lose a month or two rent, they feel it."
Durning says it is important that police catch the fraudsters.
"That's up to the police department, the police board, the solicitor general, to see if they should look into this whole scam thing. Maybe a few high-profile prosecutions would stop it."
Randy Fincham of the Vancouver police says this is a complex investigation involving multiple locations, emails, victims and bank accounts, and that investigators are still building a case to present to Crown counsel.
Tran says she and her roommates are frustrated that no one from the police has called them or asked to view their video of the confrontation. They were asked to email statements.
"As somebody who has been scammed," Tran says. "I absolutely think police should be doing more."
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