University students in Ottawa are being warned to watch out for off-campus housing scams when looking for their next apartment.
Carleton University and University of Ottawa off-campus housing websites warn that students are losing hundreds of dollars after they put down payments on houses that look nothing like the advertisement or apartments that don't exist at all.
Emily Minor is a student at Carleton University. She's never personally been scammed, but she's aware and cautious of these frauds.
"I do have a couple of friends that have [been scammed] where they had landlords try to give them the first month's rent and sign the lease without seeing the house," said Minor.
She said she's wary when looking for apartments online because if the rent seems too cheap and the house appears too nice, she believes the ad is probably a scam.
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"More and more we are seeing these scams through postings on social media," said Jim Kennelly, who works for Ombuds Services at Carleton University, which deals with student problems, including off-campus housing.
Every September, the office usually sees an uptick in complaints from students about housing issues, including scams.
In one case a few years ago, several Carleton students lost hundreds of dollars and had no place to live, according to Kennelly.
The students made a down payment to a man posing as a landlord who advertised online a nice and cheap apartment near the Carleton campus. The man told the students they would be sent a lease in a week when he returned from a trip, but they never heard from him.
"A lot of people got stung because this guy didn't own the apartment. Not only was the guy asking for $500 at the beginning but he got really nervy and he kept upping it and I had people who put $900 up," said Kennelly.
Kennelly personally went to the apartment after being alerted by concerned parents.
He discovered the apartment was not for rent at all. In fact, it was owned by a woman who lived there and her address had been used without her knowledge to scam unsuspecting students out of money.
There are some options for students who have been scammed. Kennelly said Carleton students have access to the University of Ottawa Community Legal Clinic, which can help them file a complaint to small claims court.
But he adds the best way to avoid these types of frauds is to be proactive. "You have to be careful. You have to see what you're buying," said Kennelly.
"Don't be shy. Go look at an apartment, check the water pressure, see if the shower works and go talk to the tenants living there."
Off-campus housing scams don't just target Carleton and University of Ottawa students and aren't limited to renting properties the renters don't actually own. In some cases, such as in the area around Algonquin College, landlords are overselling the properties, according to College Ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli.
These include traditional three-bedroom homes that have been renovated to fit as many bedrooms as possible — sometimes creating eight bedrooms with no shared living space for the student renters, said Chiarelli.
Chiarelli said these houses are unsafe for the students living in them because some of the rooms have no windows and no fire escapes.
"It's a bit of the wild west and we need to fix that," said Chiarelli, whose ward includes Algonquin College.
Students are signing leases on houses that are advertised as cheap and close to the Algonquin campus, but that's not what they're getting, according to Chiarelli, who said landlords are trying to make as much money as possible off their properties.
"They know they can rent out six or seven rooms at the going rate in Ottawa and they will make a fortune and they don't have to do any maintenance on the property," said Chiarelli.
"They can just run it into the ground."
He adds it's a hard problem to solve because police need a search warrant to inspect the house, and those are difficult to get.
For now, there is one tip Chiarelli offers to stop scams: ask for a fire inspection.
If a student suspects a fire hazard in their apartment or house, they can ask for a fire inspection from Ottawa Fire Prevention before signing a lease.
"The firefighter will look for wiring issues and see if escape routes are available. On top of that the firefighter can report if the landlord is renting out more than the three rooms that they are allowed," said Chiarelli.
Chiarelli is tabling a new bylaw later this year that he hopes will put a stop to illegal housing. It would require landlords to agree to a safety inspection and would ensure that there are no illegal rooms.
Unlike Carleton and Ottawa U, Algonquin does not issue warnings about housing scams.
However Chiarelli said with the popularity of off-campus housing at Algonquin, similar warnings will probably be coming in the future.