St. John’s homeowner whose house was used in rental scam warning others

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A woman whose address has been used by scammers dozens of times is warning people who are looking for a place to live in the St. John’s area to be on the lookout for scams.

Mickie Blackwood, who lives near Memorial University, regularly has prospective tenants knock on her door, asking to view an apartment she doesn’t have.

She estimates between 35 and 40 people have come by expecting a viewing over the past three years.

“It was barely noticeable at first so I really didn’t give it much thought,” she said. “It picked up last year, and from January to the end of March it was weekly — sometimes two per week.”

It came to a head in February, when someone came by for a viewing — resulting in an emotional explanation about making a deposit on the nonexistent apartment he saw in an ad posted to a student housing group on Facebook.

“This young man came, and he had seen the ad and wanted to look at the apartment, and I said, ‘There is no apartment,’ and he almost broke down in tears,” she said.

“My heart just broke for him because all the others, I would always ask, ‘Did you send money?’ and they always said no. He was the first one that said yes,” said Blackwood.

It prompted Blackwood to take to social media to warn others about the scam.

“They come and they have this hope on their face and I have to dash that hope — which breaks my heart too — but we’re not planning on renting. We’re both retired, we’re enjoying this house to ourselves, so you know it’s hard,” she said.

Scamming becoming more common

Holly Halfyard, a business developer and a Realtor with Krown Property Investments, also had to issue a warning last year after a scammer took images and descriptions from one of their listings and created a duplicate ad asking prospective tenants for security deposits and first month’s rent.

“We had a tenant who actually recognized our company and knew that we had managed the building, so they reached out to us and told us what was going on,” said Halfyard. “But it’s crazy how people … can be so malicious in trying to scam prospective tenants.” 

Halfyard is familiar with the rental market in St. John’s and believes housing scams are becoming more common because of the housing crisis.

To avoid them, she recommends people use extreme caution when sending any landlord money or information, and when going for viewings. 

“Always check information,” she said. “If you’re speaking with someone and you’re not sure if they’re a legitimate landlord or not, it wouldn’t hurt to ask for a previous tenant who might have dealt with that landlord.”

She also suggests sending a friend or family member to view an apartment if the prospective tenant can’t view it themselves. 

Halfyard also warns of some red flags when apartment hunting, included posts with grammatical issues, photos that seem too good to be true, and pressure for money.

“If they’re avoiding questions about the apartment and they’re just pressuring you for the first month’s rent or the security deposit, then that should raise some red flags,” said Halfyard. 

Under the province’s Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord can’t ask for more than three-quarters of the rent as a security deposit, she said.

“If someone’s asking for more than 75 per cent of rent, then that should certainly raise a red flag because you can’t do that.”

Reporting fraud

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Const. James Cadigan said police have received complaints about rental scams.

He recommends people ask for background information about the property and for a virtual tour if they cannot visit.

“You often hear that individuals who seem to be targeted are individuals who can’t seem to visit the property advertised,” said Cadigan, who recommends people report any suspicion of fraud to the RNC or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Meanwhile, there are people trying to help.

Ben Strickland has been hosting and helping international students settle in St. John’s since 2010.

He’s not affiliated with Memorial University, but international students recommend him to other incoming students.

“They get in touch with me even before they come to Newfoundland,” he said. “I help them find safe housing and help them set up their banking and cell service and even navigate buying groceries.”

Strickland often helps international students find safe places to live, helping them avoid scams.

“A lot ask for my help in finding a place before they come so they don’t get scammed,” he said. “Once they find a place, I’ll look and make sure it’s a safe place for real, and a lot of time it’s not.”

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