Ontario cottage rental scam leaves families out thousands of dollars
Police warn this type of fraud is on the rise, urge people to take extra precautions
The Kijiji cottage rental was exactly what Pat Fiorino says he was looking for — a decently priced lakeside retreat where he and his family could unwind for six days at the end of August.
Fiorino, a Toronto resident, has rented cottages posted to Kijiji and other sites half a dozen times in past years with no issue, he said. This time also seemed legitimate because he received booking information, a link to more photos and an invoice from the supposed Collingwood cottage owner who went by the name Ian.
Fiorino sent Ian $1,050 by Interac e-Transfer, but said in the days leading up to the vacation, couldn't reach Ian by phone or email. CBC News also tried to get in touch with him, but he did not respond.
Concerned, Fiorino said he did some sleuthing online and connected with four other people who'd had almost identical experiences when trying to rent the property for their families. More red flags went up when they realized Ian had booked them on overlapping dates.
In total they'd paid more than $8,000, Fiorino said.
"So obviously, everything pointed to a scam," Fiorino told CBC News.
"We're disappointed, but also content we're safe and didn't make the trip up there only to find that we're going to a wrong address."
Patti Norberg lives in Collingwood, Ont., and said two women recently pulled up in her neighbour's driveway,under the impression they'd rented the cottage for a week.
When they told Norberg's husband they were waiting to get the keys from the homeowner, Ian, he had to break the news to them nobody by that name lived there.
"Boy, oh boy, I would love if this Ian was caught," Norberg said. "It's sad to me people in this world are trying to scam other people."
After this story was published, CBC News was contacted by people claiming to be the legitimate owners of the cottage pictured in the fraudulent Kijiji ad. They declined to comment for this story.
Rental scams increasing
Ontario Provincial Police Det. Sgt. John Armit, who works as a team leader with the RCMP's Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), said rental scams are on the rise.
Reports of rental fraud to CAFC have jumped over 40 per cent from 669 in 2017 to 946 in 2020. Last year, cases totalled over $729,000 in losses and affected 499 people, according to the centre's statistics. Police estimate only five per cent of victims file reports.
"When it comes to the nice summer weather, fraudsters will start targeting desirable rental properties," he said.
"And there's almost a panic with a lot of people that they don't want to lose out on these properties so they'll transfer the funds only to find out that property was never to be rented."
He urged people to become their own detectives by going to see the property before their stay or asking the landlord for proof of ownership.
Tony Anscombe, with Internet security company ESET, said fraudsters have been taking advantage of the pandemic lockdowns, when people are less likely to visit a property or meet the homeowner beforehand.
He advised people to stick with official property rental sites rather than responding to small ads on social media and be wary of anything that looks too good to be true, such as a lower-than-normal price or something available in a short timeframe.
People can use reverse image searches to see if the photos posted are being used in other ads, too.
Also avoid sending money for rental properties through e-Transfer, Anscombe said. There's usually no holding period so it goes straight into the recipient's bank account and it's usually impossible to recoup the money.
Fiorino hopes 'no one else gets scammed'
He said paying through sites like Airbnb is safer because the payment is encrypted and held for a period of time. And paying by credit card or PayPal usually provides another layer of protection.
If a person does get scammed, Anscombe said they shouldn't feel embarrassed and recommends they report the crime to police immediately.
"Some of these fraudsters do this as a business and they're very proficient at it," he said.
Fiorino reported what happened to Toronto police, CAFC and Kijiji.
Kijiji Canada said it immediately removed the ad after it was flagged and banned the user's profile.
Fiorino hasn't yet heard back from police, but is hopeful Ian will get caught.
"I'm less concerned about getting the money back," Fiorino said.
"I care more about making sure no one else gets scammed."