Online rental ad too good to be true, scammer almost ensnares Winnipeg house hunter

A Winnipeg man wants house hunters to beware after he almost got sucked in by an online rental scam.

Ad listed River Heights bungalow for rent, but house's real owner already put it up for sale

Jason Hasselman found an advertisement on Craigslist for a bungalow in River Heights renting for $1,050 per month. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A Winnipeg man wants house hunters to beware after he almost got sucked in by an online rental scam.

A voice in the back of Jason Hasselman's mind said the price seemed too good be true when he found an advertisement on Craigslist for a bungalow in River Heights renting for $1,050 per month.

But he was on a tight deadline — his lease was up at the end of the month, and he needed to find a place soon.

"I emailed them and told them right up front I was very interested. I wanted to get the house, so I was really trying to reinforce that I would be the best tenant for them, and there was no response," he said in an interview on CBC's Up to Speed.

Anxiously, Hasselman kept emailing over the course of a week, and eventually got a response from a man who said he lived in Seattle, and sent Hasselman an application.

The man requested photos of Hasselman, "just so he could see who he was dealing with," Hasselman said. In return, the man sent Hasselman photos allegedly of himself and his family.

"I have a journalism background as well, and you know, I was really surprised at myself for getting that emotionally invested without seeing the house, without really discussing a lot of questions that I would normally have," he said.

He decided to check out the house for himself. When he rode by on his bike, he saw a "for sale" sign on the front lawn. When he asked the Craigslist poster about the sign, the man told Hasselman he had planned to sell the house, but then had to quickly move to Seattle, and don't worry about the sign, it will be taken down.

"And at this point, the renter was suggesting if I was really serious, because he had other people in line waiting to see or to rent the property, that I should send a deposit online," Hasselman said.

He decided to check out the house one more time. This time, the door of the house he wanted to rent opened, and a woman asked him what he was looking for.

When Hasselman asked her if the property was still available to rent, she said no, the house had just been sold. She had never heard of the man trying to rent the house to Hasselman.

He decided to email the renter one more time, "just to see how far I could take it."

Hasselman said he was prepared to pay for a one-year lease up front. In the time since Hasselman first responded to the ad, he had never spoken to the renter on the phone, but within five minutes he received a call.

"The gentleman was ready to take my information and I said to him, I just have one question, and that was whether the woman living in  the property came with the lease or not," Hasselman said. "There was an abrupt pause and then the phone went dead."

'Go with your gut'

Hasselman called Winnipeg police, who referred him to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. When Hasselman called, he was told that the centre had been inundated by reports like his.

"This is a scam that has been around for several years now that unfortunately has targeted many many groups including students that are often looking for housing when they're going back to school," said Jessica Gunson, acting call centre and intake unit manager at Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

She recommends people always check out the property themselves, and if the people advertising the property aren't able to do that, "that is a huge red flag that they're probably not the owner of that establishment."

Gunson advises against sending money online when you haven't met the other person. Also Google the address and make sure there are no duplicate posts.

Finally, she says "go with your gut."

"A lot of victims will say, 'you know, it sounded fishy or I had a bad feeling.' We need to trust that instinct, and that goes for all scams now."

With files from Cameron MacLean and Ismaila Alfa