A rental scam has resurfaced in Thunder Bay that could leave some bank accounts vacant.

Local student Marianna Mishibinjima thought she'd found a great apartment on Kijiji, until the person posing as a landlord asked her to transfer money to Alabama.

"My friend, she said 'don't do it' because a friend of hers sent that person $800 one time, and yeah, they never heard anything back from that person,” Mishibinjima recalled.

Marianna Mishibinjima

Marianna Mishibinjima thought she'd found a great apartment on Kijiji — until the person posing as a landlord asked her to transfer money to Alabama. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

The Canadian Anti Fraud Centre’s Daniel Williams has heard this story before.

He said two people from northwestern Ontario told the centre they also sent money to bogus landlords. The victims are frequently those who can least afford to lose hundreds of dollars, Williams noted.

"Many times it's people in desperate situations.  And they see an ad like this, and it seems to be an answer to their prayers."

After receiving the scam email three different times, Mishibinima said she posted a warning about the scam on Facebook.

"I see everybody's having trouble finding apartments these days … and housing is very limited.  I just wanted to warn everyone because it did happen to someone that I know and it could happen to someone else too."

Even for people like her who wise up to the scam before sending any money, it's still a nuisance, she said.

“[It] just gets your hopes up for nothing pretty much.  It just gets you down, feeling out."

And for good reason: the apartment had everything “that someone would want in an apartment,” she said, including free parking, free internet, free cable, and pets are allowed.

Scams take place year-round

Williams said there are warning signs to look for, including being asked to send money to a foreign country.

“Look at that company's website; whether it's Western Union or Moneygram, right there they have warnings saying, 'if you're sending money to a stranger, it's a scam.'"

Williams said the scammers typically make unauthorized use of real addresses and pilfer interior photos from other rental listings. He said the scam has been around for a while, is quite sophisticated, and appears to be a product of organized crime.

"They're tricking the consumer into sending off money in a manner that should only be sent to friends and family.  They're sending it for business. Once they trick the consumer into doing that, it's almost impossible to get that money back."

The scams take place year-round, but Williams said they see some spikes at times when students are looking for accommodation or heading into holiday seasons with rental properties.

"Many a victim has told us, 'if I hadn't been so pressed for time, if I hadn't had things working against me the way they were, I would've had the time to see through it, but I made the decision way too quickly.’ That always works to the scammer’s advantage." 

The success rate for catching the perpetrators of these types of scams is not high, Williams added, nevertheless people should report fraud when it happens.