Edmonton police are investigating after receiving numerous complaints about a fraudulent house rental in Edmonton’s Dickensfield neighbourhood.
Marissa Goulding and her boyfriend are the most recent to be conned by the suspects.
The couple was looking for a new place to live, with cheaper rent. They were living paycheque to paycheque after Goulding lost her job.
“We posted an ad on Kijiji saying what we were looking for, our budget, all this — and of course our numbers in case anyone could help us out,” she said.
A month later, she got a text from someone saying they had a house for rent, right in their budget.
“He told me the damage deposit was $700, rent was $850 a month. I wouldn’t have to pay first month’s rent until I moved in. To us it seemed like a great deal,” she recalled.
The supposed landlord sent the pair photos of both the inside and outside of a home. The exterior photo matched a house in Dickensfield.
Goulding wanted to see the house in person, but the man said the only viewing window was at a time she was unavailable. Then, he asked for money to lock it down.
“He sent us all the lease and papers. They looked legit so we went forward and did the deposit,” she said.
The agreement the couple filled out says it’s from the “Alberta Real Estate – Residential Tenancy Branch.”
Goulding said she trusted the man she was texting. She’d even spoken to him over the phone.
That all changed the day before they were supposed to move in. The landlord started making excuses and pushing back the date. Goulding finally had enough and physically went to the house to knock on the door.
That’s when reality came crashing down.
The woman who answered the door told Goulding she’s rented the house for four years with her husband. They’ve had about a dozen people each year come knocking, ready to move in. But they’re not leaving, and the person claiming to be the landlord isn’t actually the landlord.
“I just kind of broke down on her doorstep because everything was like a spiral. You don’t know what to do in that situation. You feel kind of lost almost.”
On the lease, the landlord’s name is listed as Peter Deke Berg, and his wife is listed as Mary Lynn Berg. Their home address is in Halifax, N.S.
Those names, police later told Goulding, are aliases. Their Halifax street address doesn’t exist and the listed postal code is for a commercial strip mall.
Neither the real tenants at the Edmonton home, nor the true landlord, are involved in the fraud, according to police.
In fact, the tenants felt so bad that people were being cheated, they had a sign in their window for months warning: “Not for rent, it’s a scam.”
“I just don’t understand how someone can get away with it for so long,” Goulding said.
Out $700, she took her complaints to the Edmonton Police Service.
“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon,” Det. Michael Walkom with the EPS said. “The people that are doing these crimes are scraping information from other advertisements that are out there. They’re getting pictures, property descriptions and addresses.”
Then, Walkom said, the suspects usually respond to wanted ads, sometimes creating their own rental listings. Once they receive a damage deposit, they vanish.
“The internet provides a lot of disposable ways to communicate. I can communicate through multiple numbers on a certain day, or multiple emails, or multiple accounts on sales sites,” the detective said.
He said the con artists also target people who appear desperate for a place to live — often they’re low-income, immigrants or first-time renters.
“They know they’re in a time sensitive situation. They need to get into a property in a hurry. So then they will push that person and pressure them into giving a damage deposit sooner than they normally would.”
The crimes can be conducted from anywhere.
“There’s quite a few that do go overseas and are being perpetrated by people elsewhere. There’s lots of different countries that they go to. But there are, a lot of times, local connections as well,” Walkom said.
Still, renters can take steps to try and protect themselves.
“Make sure you meet the landlord in person, make sure you see the property in person. Don’t provide a damage deposit sight unseen,” Walkom said.
Other tips include asking the landlord for valid photo ID in person, googling both them and the address, as well as any phone numbers and emails they provide, and doing a reverse image search of any photos you’re sent.
“A lot of times people will go out there after they’ve been victimized, warning others of the same thing.”
In this case, the photos of the inside of the house are entirely inaccurate – likely from other homes. The exterior photos are also out of date, the garage door looks different today, as do the flower beds.
“A lot of times, looking at the ads, sometimes people get that gut feeling that this is too good to be true. Listen to that,” Walkom said.
He said Edmonton’s cyber crimes department have seen 73 online fraud cases reported in the last 90 days. That includes things like rental scams, fake tickets and stolen vehicles.
Walkom explained only a small fraction of victims actually report the crimes.
“People don’t like to admit that they’re being scammed. It feels embarrassing to realize that somebody took advantage of us. It’s important for people to realize this does happen to anybody and everybody and not to feel ashamed,” he said.
“Come to report it to police. We don’t know what piece of information that you got from the suspect is going to be what leads us to identify them and be able to help others out and maybe arrest this person.”
As for Goulding, she and her boyfriend are still hunting for another place to live, but she’s very leery.
“We thought it was a new start, right? I lost my job and we were running behind. We needed a cheaper place. We saw this and thought it’s a great opportunity. it’s in our budget, it’s everything we need, our dog can have a yard. $700. We put it all on one paycheque, just to find out it was nothing.”
She said the ordeal shattered her faith in humanity.
“Someone’s hard earned cash, just gone. We don’t know where it is and we have nothing to show for it.”