‘Nowhere to live and nowhere to go’: MUN student from Ontario hit by rental scam

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Sept. 10 ,2018 (Courtesy of CBC.ca ) – Imagine moving to Newfoundland from another province to study at Memorial University, only to discover upon your arrival that the people at your new rental property have no idea who you are, or what you’re talking about.

That’s what Elaine Searle, 23, says happened to her.

Searle drove from her hometown of West Guilford, Ont., and arrived in St. John’s on Aug. 30.

She says she knocked on the door of what was supposed to be her new place to live, but was met with puzzled looks.

“The people upstairs said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Searle said.

“My heart just sank and I thought: ‘This is it. I don’t have anywhere to live.'”

Seale says she went to police that same day to file a complaint.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says its economic crimes section is investigating, but wouldn’t comment on specific details of the case.

Finding the apartment

Searle says she originally had a room rented in a different house through an acquaintance she’d met last year while living in Newfoundland.

But she says she found out mid-August that he had given that room away to someone else, just two weeks before she was due to move. So she says the pressure was on to find a new place to live.

Her mother had found an ad for a basement apartment on Kijiji, and Searle started emailing the landlord.

“I talked to them for a couple of days, I asked tons of questions, they had all the answers,” she said.

Searle says she looked up the property on Google Earth to compare the photos from the ad, and everything matched up.

“Even both of my parents had looked at the ad.… Both of them agreed that it was a good idea,” she said.

Searle then paid $380 — the first month’s rent, not including utilities — as a deposit.

“This is how I arranged [accommodations in St. John’s] last year … and it was great,” she said.

‘I felt really devastated’

Searle says she didn’t suspect anything was out of the ordinary until she arrived at the house on the morning that she was supposed to move in.

“That’s when the meltdown kind of started,” she said, realizing that she had nowhere to live, and nowhere to go.

“I felt really devastated because I didn’t know what my next step was going to be. I was so exhausted; had just driven hours upon hours over the last five days on little to no sleep,” she said.

“All I wanted to do was turn around and go home.”

Searle says she felt dumb and blamed herself for not being more wary. She says she sat in her car, called her mother, and started to cry.

“It was hard to call my parents and say that I can’t do it by myself, and that I needed help,” she said, noting that she’s an independent person.

All I wanted to do was turn around and go home.– Elaine Searle

“And knowing that I’ve got to pay for tuition and all this other stuff, then you’re panicking about trying to find somewhere else to live and I don’t know if I have enough money budgeted right away, and can I afford to go and stay in a hotel and stuff until I set myself up.”

She says her mother started looking online for short-term rentals.

“I called anybody I knew,” she said. “Luckily one of my friends, he let me come over, sit on his couch, and relax while he went to work, just so I could catch my breath.”

Happy ending

But Searle’s story does have a serendipitous happy ending.

She was at her friend’s house for only about an hour when she came across a new potential place to live. She spoke with the landlord, and drove over to the house for a viewing.

“[At the same time] my mom had posted on Facebook at home that if anybody knew anybody — even just to let me stay for a couple of days or knew of anybody renting,” Searle said.

One of her cousins saw that post, and had gone to school with the new landlord’s stepfather.

“So it was really funny because she had called him, and he was calling [the landlord] to tell him about me, while I was here touring the place,” Searle said.

“So they felt really comfortable with me coming in … [and] they took me in right away.”

Protecting yourself

Later that afternoon, when Searle got settled away, she went to the police to file a complaint.

Const. Geoff Higdon says it’s not uncommon for the RNC to receive reports from people who have experienced fraud through online classified sites.

“There are these little things that you can do to protect yourself when it comes to rentals, very similar to how you protect yourself from scams involving sales,” he said.

Higdon suggests asking for references.

“A lot of landlords will actually ask for references from potential tenants, but tenants could also ask for a reference from a landlord as well,” he said.

“[Also] asking for identification, verifying the person who you’re dealing with is in fact legally who they say they are.”

If something doesn’t feel right, just walk away from it, and find the product or service from someone else.– Geoff Higdon

Higdon says when going to view a rental property, you should bring someone with you for your own safety.

He says it’s also important to trust your gut in these situations — and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“If something doesn’t feel right, just walk away from it, and find the product or service from someone else,” he said.

Asking a friend for help

Searle says she’s lucky she out-of-pocket only for that first month’s rent.

“It’s still $380, which makes a difference when you’re a student — [but it’s] only $380, and I can get through on that,” she said.

“If I had lost, like, $1,500, that would have been way too much, and I don’t know what I would have been doing right now.”

Searle says in hindsight, she should have gotten someone to do an in-person viewing of the rental property.

“My biggest advice is you need to take the time to find somebody … anyone that can go and look at it for you,” she said.

“I should have talked to [my friend in Clarenville] and asked her. For the $100 it would have cost me to pay for her to get gas here, and look at something and come back, [it] would have saved me so much headache in the end.”