Despite recent hits to housing prices associated with increasing interest rates, Toronto remains an incredibly expensive city for renters. In their breakdown of Toronto living costs, U of T Student Life estimates that housing for students costs between $1,000–2,700 a month, depending on factors such as location and housing type.

With the increase in rent and students’ desire to study in person as the pandemic subdues, rental scams have skyrocketed.

Student scam experience

In an email to The Varsity, a student — who requested anonymity because they fear repercussions from their scammer — described how a landlord tried to scam them over the summer. 

The student, who was on exchange from University of Geneva, Switzerland, looked into a place to stay during their exchange. Just before coming to Toronto to start their studies, they saw an ad on a U of T off-campus housing website. According to the student, the website originally listed four rooms available, so they applied. The landlord responded and explained that the four rooms were not available separately. The landlord informed them that he had a fifth room in the house that he hadn’t yet listed. The room was priced at $600.

The student explained they had a contact in Toronto who went to visit this landlord. The student also had a few conversations with the landlord over the phone and everything seemed okay. The landlord sent the student a lease, and the student signed it. 

After signing the lease, the student sent the first and last month rent deposit, which totalled $1,200. 

A few days later, the bank, Toronto-Dominion, asked for more information about the landlord who was receiving the payment, including the landlord’s nationality and their date and place of birth. According to the student, they received a negative response from the landlord, who claimed the information the bank required was confidential, which is what aroused the student’s suspicion. 

A few days following this interaction, the student’s bank advisor forwarded them an email from the Canadian bank. According to the Canadian bank, the landlord in question appeared on a red list of individuals who had a history of suspicious banking activity. 

The student cancelled the payment and terminated the agreement. The landlord responded with a message that made the student feel threatened. 

The student did not ask any U of T services for help following this experience, but they reported the ad to the off-campus housing site. 

Scam reports

The Varsity spoke with Paloma Bertossi, Student Life officer of housing education and outreach, who said that students reported more scams this year than in previous years. Since the beginning of the fall term, Student Life has received formal reports from five students who fell victim to housing scams. 

Bertossi explained that, in two of the cases, the advertisements students saw did not properly reflect the rental spaces, so the students involved believed that they hadn’t received what they paid for. One out-of-province student arrived in Ontario only to have their supposed landlord promptly cut off all communication, leaving them without a place to live. Housing services placed the student into a residence. 

In the two other cases, students found a listing through a U of T off-campus housing website. The contact associated with the listing started asking the students for illegal deposits and pressured them to pay additional money. “Once they receive that money, [the scammer] would disappear,” said Bertossi. Although U of T didn’t initially detect any “red flags” indicating that the listing was fraudulent, the students began to suspect that the listing was a scam. They contacted U of T, which took down the listing.

Bertossi explained that, between first and last month’s rent and a holding fee, one student lost a total of $4,000 to a scammer. According to the 2006 Residential Tenancies Act. Ontario landlords are not allowed to charge tenants additional fees, which may include holding fees. 

Rental ad criteria

U of T staff check every listing they receive before posting it on the off-campus housing website. There are certain red flags Bertossi looks for when reviewing listings. She checks whether the ad has plenty of pictures, if the unit seems real to her, and does a reverse Google search on some of the photos provided to see if anything different shows up online. Bertossi also explained that she follows up with landlords to ask about any conflicting information she discovers online. 

“The other main thing I look for is: does it look too good to be true?” said Bertossi.

Bertossi stressed that students should report rental scams because highlighting potential scams can help make sure that someone else does not fall victim. When U of T receives a scam report, they flag the scammer’s name, credit card number, or any other information the scammer used. If the scammer creates a new account, Student Life can use this information to identify the scammers more easily. 

Housing resources

In a statement to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, vice-provost students, wrote, “Unfortunately, rental housing scams do happen, and international students are particularly vulnerable.” 

U of T offers various workshops and modules to help keep students informed about managing the rental market and avoiding scams. These modules include documents, including a sample rent receipt, an apartment viewing checklist, and the Ontario Standard Lease form to help students differentiate between legitimate housing advertisements and scams.  

Welsh advises international students who cannot view a property in person to send someone in their place or use a verified rental agency or realtor.  

According to Welsh, in “the unfortunate case that a student is scammed, or thinks they might have been,” the university provides contact information so students can report the scam and get in touch with wire transfer companies. 

Downtown Legal Services also provides services for students who want to take scammers to court.