Rental scams resurface on Craigslist

Never wire cash to prospective landlord: WHA

There might be more rental housing available this fall in Whistler than in previous years, but rental scams are again surfacing in the resort.

The story is similar to previous scams reported in Whistler and elsewhere - a poster on Craigslist offers a good price on an apartment or house but explains that he or she lives out of the country and cannot show the inside of the apartment. The prospective tenant is asked to view the unit from outside and wire money to secure the unit. The keys are promised by courier when payment is received.

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New Zealander Mia Jewett responded to two such Craigslist ads in recent weeks, and was tipped off that something wasn't right when both respondents sent the same photos of what was supposed to be the available unit. Both were sent from different email addresses with different names, but both had a similar story, she said.

"They were basically the same photos," Jewett said. "It was totally a scam."She said she checked online maps and both addresses seemed to exist in Whistler, but she didn't bother going any further because she knew the listings weren't real. She called the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) and Crimestoppers to report the potential fraud.

"Scams happen everywhere around the world, but I just don't want anyone to fall subject to it," Jewett said.

Meanwhile, she's still searching for a one-bedroom apartment for herself and her partner. Jewett said she's looking to settle in Whistler if she can find a place with a one-year lease.

Despite more rental units currently available in Whistler than for the same period in the last two years, Jewett said "it's pretty competitive" out there. Still, she said she won't be agreeing to rent anything unless she's physically met the prospective landlord and physically been inside the unit.

If a tenant has time, Jewett even suggests checking with municipal hall to find out who legally owns the property.

Marla Zucht, general manager of the WHA, said Whistler has seen rental scams in the past. With so many absentee homeowners in Whistler, it can be tricky or confusing for potential renters. She said she's heard stories in the past of two or three people sending money for the same unit and none receiving keys.

"How widespread it is, I'm not sure," she said.

Though it can be tricky, steps can be taken to protect yourself and tenants should learn their rights, Zucht said. Be wary if you can't access the inside of a unit, and never send cash. A post-dated, registered cheque can at least be stopped if the keys don't show up, she said. Get the landlord's full name, address and phone number."I think they should be getting in to see the unit," Zucht said.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The photos sent to Jewett looked like a large, luxury apartment with expensive furniture.

"When I looked at those photos I knew that definitely wasn't a Whistler place," Zucht said.

Tenants should also be reminded of the laws in place in B.C. that a landlord can only charge up to a half-month's rent as a deposit. Zucht said she often hears from new seasonal arrivals that landlords are asking for $2,000 or more upfront.

B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Branch (www.rto.gov.bc.ca) and the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (www.tenants.bc.ca) are excellent resources, she said.

For those already in a tenancy but are concerned about being kicked out for the 2010 Olympics, the municipality has started a tenant registry. Email renters@whistler.ca to register.

Recent WHA stats show that rental availability is currently up, but prices are also "quite significantly" higher than previous years, Zucht said. For the week of Sept. 27, the WHA tracked 70 ads for long-term rentals. That's compared to only 28 last year and about 60 in 2007 for the same week, she said.

Meanwhile, the average listed price for a studio is currently $1,280, compared with $1,096 last year and $992 in 2007.

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