A Toronto man is being accused of running a double-ended rental scam in a trendy downtown neighbourhood, where he allegedly ripped off multiple landlords and prospective roommates for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and cash deposits.
Mike Lemke, 33, allegedly used fake references to rent three high-end Liberty Village condos, only to stop paying rent shortly after moving in.
Landlords say that, when confronted, Lemke was evasive and aggressive, remaining in the condos for months as the eviction process moved through the Landlord and Tenant Board of Ontario.
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In at least one case, during the eviction process, Lemke advertised a bedroom for rent in the unit — without permission — and allegedly took cash deposits from interested renters, only to tell them the room was no longer available just days before the move-in date.
In at least one case the deposit, which exceeded $2,000, has not been returned.
The activity led two of Lemke's former landlords to put up posters of him in the area in an attempt to gather more information.
"When we all got together and met each other, we knew exactly what it was. It was a scam," Paunche Kalia, one of the landlords, said in an interview.
Lemke did not respond to repeated attempts CBC Toronto made to reach him by phone and email.
"He's just a bully," Steve Arruda, the property manager for a condo Lemke rented at 65 East Liberty St., said in an interview.
"I've been a landlord for 20 years. I've never had an issue like this in my life," Arruda, 41, said.
Lemke moved into the two-bedroom, 1,220 square-foot unit in October 2016. Arruda says he signed a rental agreement for two years, provided multiple references and a credit report, which all checked out.
"It was all fake," Arruda said. "They're all buddies."
He now believes the references, including the employer Lemke listed, were actually friends who vouched for him.
As for the credit check, Lemke provided a photocopy of an Equifax report that Arruda says was "cut and pasted."
CBC Toronto has viewed the report and, while it appears to indicate a credit score for September 2016, a 2013 date is also visible in small print at the top of the page.
Altered credit reports
Jerome LaPorte, a partner with Property Management Toronto, says landlords take a risk when they allow tenants to provide their own copies of Equifax credit reports. LaPorte says he's seeing more cases of people with bad credit altering these documents. He recommends that landlords get credit reports straight from Equifax themselves.
Arruda said Lemke stopped paying rent after the first month and, based on his behaviour, believes it was the plan all along.
"He knows the law so well," Arruda said. "He would say 'Listen: I'm going to be here for six months and you can't do anything about it.'"
In February, the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board ordered Lemke to pay $17,000 in arrears. Arruda said Lemke moved out of the unit, without paying, on April 3.
That same day, Lemke moved into another spacious, two-bedroom condo right across the street at 69 Lynn Williams St.
The other condo where Lemke allegedly failed to pay thousand of dollars in rent is just down the street at 75 East Liberty St.
"That's his scene," Arruda said.
At all three condos, landlords accuse Lemke of very similar actions, including the use of fake references, failure to pay thousands of dollars in rent, and evasive, confrontational behaviour.
Both landlords at 69 Lynn Williams St. and 75 East Liberty St. started the eviction process but Lemke moved out, without paying, before a ruling was issued.
Room for rent
During his stay at 69 Lynn Williams St., Lemke advertised a room for rent in the unit.
In August, Shayan Memarzadeh found the online listing on Kijiji. Memarzadeh, 21, had recently landed a co-op placement in downtown Toronto and was hunting for a place to live.
The spacious, two-bedroom unit with a panoramic view of downtown, required a $2,400 deposit. It was something Memarzadeh, like other renters CBC Toronto has spoken with, felt necessary to pay in order to secure a rental in Toronto's competitive housing market.
Memarzadeh viewed the condo, signed a rental agreement for Oct. 1 and paid the deposit.
At this point, he had no idea Lemke hadn't paid his rent in months and was in the process of getting evicted.
'I know this sucks'
Then, on Sept. 25, six days before Memarzadeh was to move in, he received a text message from Lemke informing him of some "pretty upsetting news."
Lemke said he was being "kicked out" of the condo by his landlord and he would be returning the deposit.
"I know this sucks with it being short notice. I feel terrible… I need to go for a walk and calm down," Lemke wrote.
The lengthy message seemed earnest to Memarzadeh. But about an hour and a half earlier, Earl Merrick received the exact same one.
"Hey man," it begins. The rest is a copy of what Memarzadeh received.
Merrick, 22, had agreed to rent the same room from Lemke and paid a $2,200 deposit.
But seven weeks later, Memarzadeh's money has not been returned. Merrick has received several e-transfers, each for between $50 and $100, but says he's still owed about $1,500.
CBC Toronto has spoken with five people who were promised, and paid for, the same room at 69 Lynn Williams St., only to have Lemke back out at the last minute.
In interviews, they described Lemke as "laid back" and a "cool guy." Each signed a contract with Lemke and none had the impression the rental wouldn't work out.
For weeks, Merrick has been trying to get his money back, exchanging with Lemke a series of increasingly exasperated text messages.
"Send my money," Merrick texts on Oct. 4.
"Dude relax," Lemke replies later that day. "I will hit the bank today. I don't need 20 msgs."
In the messages, Lemke never explains why he does not have the deposit, although he blames the delays on bank withdrawal limits, a broken phone, and at one point he chastises Merrick for texting him on a holiday.
"I'm at thanksgiving with my family. I will send you cash Tuesday. Watch your f--king mouth," the message said.
"He's so elusive," Merrick said in an interview. "He took off with my money. I think it was a total scam."
Some deposits returned
Lemke returned the deposits of three of the prospective roommates but only after much effort and the threat of legal action.
It isn't clear if Lemke was attempting to rent out rooms at the other two Liberty Village condos.
Arruda, the property manager at 65 East Liberty St., said he found a Kijiji listing for a room in the unit while attempting to evict Lemke.
At least two of the renters at 69 Lynn Williams St. reported Lemke to the Toronto police. CBC Toronto has confirmed the police have opened an investigation.
One of the renters who went to police, Jessica Lemieux, said an officer told her there was nothing they could do since Lemke returned her deposit.
Lemieux, 29, is a legal assistant and sent Lemke a carefully worded letter, based on advice from lawyers, instructing him to return her deposit within 72 hours. He did so.
But Lemieux worries that not everyone who dealt with Lemke had the wherewithal to get their deposits back.
"I think a lot of people got screwed big time," she said.