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Rental scams on the rise: a cautionary tale

As Whistler ramps up for the winter season, online housing rental scams increase

Tuesday, October 14, 2010

"WON'T LAST. $850 / 2br - 2 BDRM / 2 BATH in The Vale Inn - Whistler. This property features a hot tub, parking, and breath taking mountain views. Cats are OK - purrr. Dogs are OK - wooof"

The thing about the Whistler rental market is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Pam Thompson, property manager for Golden Dreams Accommodations, which oversees rentals at the Vale Inn, says the above listing "sounds strange."

"There aren't any two-bedrooms at the Vale. There are only a few one-bedrooms and they are mostly studios," she said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "Unless they exist in non-conformance, of which there are a few but then there are no pets allowed. The only people who are allowed cats and dogs are the owners, and they have to be grandfathered. It sounds like a weird thing."

Seasonal workers and those unfamiliar with the realities of the Whistler rental market are the most susceptible demographic to fall prey to scam-artists who capitalize on hopeful mountain enthusiasts looking to score affordable accommodation in a town with off-the-charts rental prices. Realtor Michael Wintemute of First Real Estate Center in Whistler said local rentals posted on Craigslist, the go-to online classified site, are regularly mixed with fraudulent offers.

"There are several of them out there and they become quite evident when all of a sudden you see that you can get a two-bedroom unit for $800 a month, which doesn't make any sense," he said. "Let's face it. We know what makes sense and what doesn't. The issue is for people who arrive in Whistler, start looking for a place, pick up on one and put their money down because they don't know any different."

To avoid being scammed, Wintemute suggests cross-referencing the name of the property owner with the address at municipal hall. Securing access to the property before handing over rent is another option, as many of the addresses posted either don't exist or aren't for rent.

"One that we checked was listed for sale on MLS, so I assume that's where they are getting their information from, copying the photos and descriptions into Craigslist," continued Wintemute. "They are obviously out of country, they always want the money sent to England or somewhere overseas, and they even give you instructions about how to do a Western Union transfer before they mail you the keys, that sort of thing."

In January of this year the Canadian Press reported on a RCMP fraud investigation involving the parents of Olympic athlete Steve Mesler. Ben and Lois Mesler of New York thought they'd rented a house in Whistler after placing a classified ad on The ad was a scam and the Meslers lost $8,000.

Whistler realtor Richard Christiansen said he started keeping a close eye on Craigslist after noticing a rental posting for an apartment near his home. Posing as an interested renter, he contacted the owner and asked to see the place.

"It's unreal what these people do. One of the listings is for Gondola Way, which is right where I'm living and the funny thing is that I had met the real owner because he had a one bedroom suite for rent, and this wasn't him," Christiansen said. "Those people tried to scam me the rent and offer me his house. They even had a five-page rental agreement. Unbelievable."