An Ottawa couple recently built their brand new rental property, but before they could rent it out, they found a family living there without their knowledge as a result of a bold and complex scam.
Con, based on a fake listing on Kijiji, but with a confusing twist, not only lured the family out of thousands of dollars in rent, but left homeowners feeling stunned and offended.
The trial began in August after Anuj and Saloni Mittal bought a two-story townhouse on Pastel Way in the Barrhaven neighborhood of Ottawa and listed it for rent.
A few weeks later, on September 13, the couple’s MLS agent, Dinesh Sharma, called them early in the morning with some shocking news.
He said a man who claimed to live in the couple’s townhouse complained that his landlord was trying to change the rental conditions and asked for more rent.
“Your client is acting up,” Sharma reminded the man who told him.
But Mittals had not even signed a tenant at the time. As far as they knew, no one had ever lived in the newly built building.
In fact, the “For Rent” sign was still standing on the grass outside their rental property, that’s how the man found Sharma’s name and number.
Mittals and their agent quickly drove to Pastel Way to investigate.
Strangers at home
There they met David Polk, who was still settling in the townhouse that he and his family had moved into just two days earlier.
Polk explained that he had seen the rental list on Kijiji and had agreed to inspect the property, sign the lease and pay the first and last month’s rent over a series of text messages with the presumed landlord, all without a personal meeting.
But neither Mittals nor their MLS agent had ever created a Kijiji ad for the device.
Polk, who had not been in the rental market for many years, said he believed closing the deal without a face-to-face meeting was in line with how many companies were operating during the pandemic.
“Under normal circumstances, yes, it would have raised some red flags,” said the 36-year-old construction worker and father.
Polk said he e-transferred $ 4,300 in rent to a man named Mikhael Gland, who gave the combination to the lock case to give Polk access to the keys.
Disagreement on how the perpetrator obtained information
But how did the scammer know the combination?
After sharing information, the homeowners, listing agent and Polk reset a theory that the scam may have hung on an online tool called Shows time, a Chicago-based site that allows agents to schedule and book home screenings.
The service promotes itself as a one-stop-shop for accredited MLS agents. With just a few clicks, an account holder can find detailed information about a listed property-its excellent offer, viewing plan as well as the combination for the door lock box.
Sharma’s real estate agent has a contract with ShowingTime, which means that all of its properties, including the Barrhaven townhouse, are listed on the platform.
Polk, Mittals and Sharma suspect that the perpetrator gained access to the lock box combination through a reservation on ShowTime by posing as a real estate agent.
Online records show that an agent based 400 miles away in Toronto booked a screening for the townhouse on September 11th. When CBC News contacted him, this agent denied that he had ever made the reservation and expressed surprise that his account appeared to have been tampered with.
In an email, ShowTimes president Michael Lane denied that the breach came through his company.
Instead, he blamed an unnamed real estate agent for making a mistake.
“It appears to us that the perpetrator, posing as a licensed buyer’s agent in Ottawa, called another office in Ottawa that used ShowTime software on an office computer,” Lane wrote.
“Without sufficient challenge from the caller, the office staff then changed the call’s contact information over the phone.”
Although his company is not responsible, Lane said, this case has pressured them to update their software to prevent “human error like this.”
In addition to usual rent fraud, police say
Officers at the Ottawa Police Fraud Unit, which is now investigating, say they have never seen a rental fraud conducted so far before, as the perpetrator usually disappears long before a promised move-in date.
Ontario Provincial Police Det. Art. John Armit with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center said tenants should always search for duplicates and never send money before meeting in person.
The homeowners allowed the Polk family to stay in the townhouse for a week. The family has since moved into a relative’s basement.
“I feel sorry for him. He is definitely the victim,” homeowner Anuj Mittal said of Polk. “It has been shocking and surprising for our family.”
The fake Kijiji directory was still in place this week. The CBC contacted the person who created the list, who went by the name Asheley, but the correspondence ended after the reporter identified himself.
CBC’s texts sent to the phone “Mikhael Gland” received no response.
Polk said he has marked the ad for Kijiji and “will never look at Kijiji again,” while also appealing to his bank, RBC, to reverse the $ 4,300 email transfer.
A spokesman for RBC said the bank reminds customers that they must “take extra steps to ensure they are dealing with a trusted source when transferring or receiving funds.”