Airbnb-Craigslist rental scam dupes Vancouverites out of $1,000
Scammer pretends to own condo he booked on Airbnb, makes off with $1,000 deposits
Sarah Bidner says she's "still in shock" after a longtime criminal bilked her out of $1,000 in a rental scam.
Bidner and her boyfriend Daryl McDonald had been looking to rent an apartment in Vancouver starting in March. They'd checked out "at least a dozen" places, but in a city with a vacancy rate hovering near zero per cent, competition was fierce.
When Bidner and her boyfriend spotted an ad on Craigslist for a downtown Vancouver condominium, the young couple set up an appointment to see it right away.
Bidner says the man showing the condo was wearing jeans and a nice leather jacket and was clean cut.
"No red flags," she says.
The couple was so anxious to secure the condo, they e-transferred a $1,000 deposit to the man's bank account.
They never saw him again.
"It really opened my eyes to how you can just expose yourself so easily, without even knowing until it's too late," Bidner told Go Public.
The man claiming to own the apartment was 58-year-old Robert Reid.
He then posted a new ad he created on Craigslist, listing the condo for rent for $1,700 a month.
Airbnb does not demand proof of identification
Although Airbnb has an option for potential renters to submit "verified" identification, such as a passport or driver's licence, the company does not require renters to provide any identification.
All Reid supplied to sign up as a renter was a phone number and an email account.
Two young British women have told Go Public that they, too, e-transferred $1,000 into his bank account believing they would be tenants in the same condo.
They say they were suspicious enough to ask for his home address, but when they checked it later, it was the location for a nearby Money Mart.
Was one of Toronto's 'Most Wanted'
Go Public has learned that a man with the same name and birthdate has been convicted of bilking dozens of potential apartment and condominium renters in Canada and the U.S. out of thousands of dollars over more than 25 years.
As far back as 1989, Reid posed as a real estate salesman in Ontario's Peel Region and fraudulently collected deposits for rental homes.
Since then, he's been charged in a slew of incidents in Toronto, Vancouver and reportedly California, including rental fraud, credit card theft, car-jacking and assault.
In 2004, he was one of Toronto's "Most Wanted" suspects and a Canada-wide warrant was issued for his arrest.
Last fall, Toronto police issued another warrant for his arrest, after 10 alleged victims said they were bilked out of thousands of dollars when Reid claimed he was the owner of a bungalow he was actually house-sitting.
Toronto Detective Avtar Ghuman calls Reid a "career criminal" and says sites like Airbnb, Craigslist and Kijiji are a playground for fraudsters.
"The internet has made it easy for him," Ghuman said. "He can just sit behind a computer screen and lure people in."
'Sharing economy' helps scammers
Sunil Johal is policy director at the Mowat Centre, at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance.
Last year, he co-authored a report on what's called "the sharing economy," when companies like Airbnb, Uber and Etsy informally connect individuals.
Johal says the sharing economy is a gold mine for scammers, because consumers can become vulnerable in a "trust-based marketplace."
"They can often let their guard down," Johal says. "They can think that this is the safe thing to do."
Johal says targeted regulatory measures may be needed as the sharing economy blooms.
As for Airbnb, Johal says the company should consider tightening a loophole that allows people to register as users without providing verifiable identification.
Airbnb says problems are 'rare'
Airbnb spokesman Nick Shapiro says problems for hosts and guests are "incredibly rare."
"The guest in this case has been permanently removed from our community," he said.
He says Airbnb doesn't require all people using the system to provide verified identification because not everyone has a passport or driver's licence.
"If those people want to participate, you make it so they can," Shapiro said. "But if you want to make sure someone is who they say they are, we have a tool for you to do that."
That tool — whereby users can click on something called "Verified ID" and submit official identification — is optional.
The website does offer tips and advice for consumers to avoid a poor experience.
Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre opens Airbnb-related files
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has opened 94 files involving Airbnb since 2014 — consumer complaints from across Canada.
Many complaints are about payments made to fictitious Airbnb accounts.
Sarah Bidner has a word of warning about finding accommodations on the internet.
"You don't really know who you're talking to," she says.
"They can tell you anything. And so that's definitely changed how I feel and how I think. I'm not going to be as trusting on the internet."
Bidner and her boyfriend eventually did find an apartment to rent, recommended to them through an acquaintance.
Bidner and other victims have filed reports with the Vancouver police.
Phone calls, emails and texts to Robert Reid from Go Public were not returned.
Airbnb by the numbers
- 33,000 Canadian listings
- 2 million listings worldwide
- 935,000 Canadian guests in the past year
- 70 million guests worldwide
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.
We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.
We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.
Submit your story ideas at Go Public.
Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.
With files from Enza Uda