In many ways Evelin Traxler was prepared for her move to Toronto.
She had sifted through online listings and found a one-bedroom-plus-den condo listed on Kijiji. She got a credit check and provided a letter of employment.
Traxler had also saved up. So she handed over her portion, along with sister’s portion, of first and last month’s rent. This worked out to a $3,300 deposit.
Tenant’s insurance was taken care of too.
Or so she thought.
It wasn’t until May 18 — Traxler’s scheduled move-in date — that she realized something was off after a text conversation with the so-called landlord.
“I messaged him in the morning to confirm that we were still on to meet, and he replied and said that he was out of town for the long weekend and [asked], ‘Could we meet up Tuesday?’”
When she insisted they stick to the original plan, he said his cell-phone reception was poor.
She got suspicious.
Traxler, 30, decided to drive to the building, a project by Menkes at 87 Peter St., and realized it was still well under construction. Finally, she tried to book an appointment to get her Internet set up and was told by the provider that the address wouldn’t even be wired for the service until Aug. 31.
“At that point, I contacted Menkes, just because things seemed a little bit fishy,” Traxler says.
It was then that she discovered the lease she signed wasn’t the real deal — and that she wasn’t the only person to fall victim to the scam.
At least eight prospective renters have been fleeced out of a deposit by a phony landlord listing a unit at 87 Peter, says Kimberly Sears, director of condo rentals for Menkes.
Another 30 were steered clear of the scam by Menkes staff, who clued into what was going on when people started showing up at their sales office this past December asking for their keys so they could move into a building that won’t be ready for occupation until September this year.
“It is a very sophisticated scam that he’s doing,” says Sears.
“It’s a really unfortunate thing,” she adds, noting Menkes has helped a couple victims find new units.
“We’re trying to be a little bit sympathetic to them as well. But you’ve got people who give their notice based on this and pack up and are ready to move and all of a sudden they find out, not only are they out two months rent but they don’t have a place to live now.”
To help get the word out, Menkes has been flagging fraudulent listings on Craigslist as well as posting warnings on the popular website. And in January, Menkes began working with Toronto police, Sears notes.
Toronto Police Service confirmed the event number that Menkes provided to Toronto Storeys was in fact tied to an active case. But because an investigation is ongoing, TPS declined to provide further comment.
However, in an email, David Hopkinson, a TPS media relations officer, wrote, “Unfortunately there are a number of these scams being investigated throughout the city.”
Sears suggests a fear of missing out of a possible rental unit in Toronto’s strong market. With a vacancy rate of 1.1 per cent, according to the latest numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, some people seeking apartments may throw caution to the wind and not do their due diligence.
“A lot of it’s international students who are desperate and they don’t have a credit report to provide,” she adds.
To avoid falling victim to this scam, Sears recommends contacting the builder to confirm ownership if you’re thinking of renting a unit in a new building. While the builder won’t outright tell you who owns any unit, they can confirm if their records match what you’ve been provided, she explains.
You can also visit City Hall’s land registry database, or request a City of Toronto property-tax bill.
Using a realtor is another possible safeguard.
“They are under a licenced society. So if they’re doing one of these that ends up being bad, the actual tenant has a little more recourse,” she says.
“The agent has to — in order to get a listing — they have to check who the ownership is under. They can’t lease a unit without knowing who the actual title is,” she explains.
The old saying “if something’s too good to be true, it probably is” applies as well.
In the first quarter of 2018, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom condo was $2,653. This number is up 9.1 per cent from a year ago, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board.
Be wary of units that are being leased for much less than that.
Scammers are inclined to offer cheaper rents because they want to keep the overall deposit they receive below $5,000. Anything above this would mean stiffer penalties for grand theft if caught.
For new condo rentals, it’s not typical for extras like hydro to be included in the rent either.
“It’s just not what the norm is in the city,” says Sears.
“You’re not getting a two-bed two-bath unit, including parking, locker, and all your utilities for $2,200 a month.”
Traxler learned another red flag to look for.
“Unit numbers that end in 04 don’t exist. I guess it’s bad luck in some cultures,” she says.
Now she is faced with the daunting task of saving up for another deposit in one of the country’s most expensive rental markets. And after living in an Airbnb rental for a couple of days she has been taken in by her mom, who lives in Uxbridge.
“All my stuff is in storage so I’m living out of a suitcase for a moment trying to make arrangements,” she says in a phone interview.
“I’m a trusting person, you don’t expect that people are going to just blatantly, cold-heartedly steal your money and run away.
“I have no idea how or why somebody would do this … you just don’t expect that it will ever happen to you.”