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Former VPD officer speaks out after discovering his property was being used in rental scam

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When a former detective with the Vancouver Police Department discovered photos of his home were being used in a rental scam, he decided to start his own investigation.

Earlier this month, Paul McNamara was told by a friend that his New Westminster property—which he recently listed for sale—was also listed on Rentals.ca.

“It doesn’t feel good to be used as a pawn in a scam,” McNamara told CTV News Thursday. “It felt personal for sure.”

The listing included 30 photos of McNamara’s family home that were included in online real estate listings.

“It’s a scammer's dream come true,” McNamara said of the photos, which he later learned aren’t allowed to be watermarked due to regulations within the real estate sector.

After reporting the scam to the New Westminster Police Department and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, McNamara says it was clear that no one was going to do anything about it.

“They’re just information-gathering receptacles at the end of the day,” McNamara said. “After contacting everyone, I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this myself.”

‘SEAMUS’ AND THE FRAUDSTER PASTOR

He decided to reply to the ad to rent his own home, using a fake email address and the pseudonym Seamus Brogan.

The person who responded identified himself as Reverend Benjamin William, and told “Seamus” that the three-bedroom, three-bathroom house was available to rent for $2,000 a month and “ready for move-in ASAP,” pending a $1,500 security deposit.

An email between Paul McNamara, a former Vancouver police officer, and the person he discovered was using images of his home for an online rental ad. (Paul McNamara)

William included the house’s address in the email, as well as 30 pictures of the property, which he explained could only be viewed from the outside, since the pastor was travelling on a mission—plus his only trustee was allegedly in California after losing her parents to COVID-19.

The scammer requested for the deposit to be e-transferred, which McNamara says is typically how these particular criminals ask for money because “Once you hit the send button, it’s gone and it’s not traceable.”

To waste the scammer’s time and glean more information, McNamara doctored email confirmations and bank receipts to make it look like he’d e-transferred the deposit.

Eventually, he linked the scammer’s phone to a number in Utah, and his bank account to a Toronto Dominion branch in Sherbrooke, Que.

“What makes it difficult for police to catch scammers is when it spans multiple jurisdictions,” McNamara said, adding it’s extra challenging when a border is involved. “What it boils down to, to be honest is—for the potential victim—you’re on your own.”

HOW TO SPOT A RENTAL SCAM

Five years after retiring from the VPD, McNamara is making a public appeal in hopes that people will do their homework before sending rental deposits or payments.

“Before you send your money—question what you’re looking at. If the landlord on the other side of this is a legitimate landlord, they should actually welcome someone questioning what they’re looking at in the process,” McNamara said, listing some examples of questions.

“Why are you renting? Where are you going? What are you doing? How long have you lived here? Do you own the property?”

He also recommends doing online searches of any address included in rental listings—including to see if the property is posted for sale on real estate websites.

Just as he did, McNamara says people should reverse search a potential landlord’s phone number and bank information to make sure the person’s story links up, geographically speaking.

Having worked as a VPD detective for decades, McNamara says he knows that people who fall victim to scammers are usually desperate for something—be it money or a place to live in a tight rental market.

“There’s a lot of psychology at play here between the scammer and the victim,” he said.

“The person attempting to rent my house most likely posted it online on Friday, knowing that even if it’s discovered on the weekend, it wouldn’t be taken down until Monday morning,” McNamara said, adding that in this rental market, that could be enough time for the scammer to trick 10 to 15 people.

TROUBLING TREND

According to the Better Business Bureau’s 2022 Scam Tracker risk report, rental scams place sixth on a list of 10 that Canadians are most susceptible to.

Last summer, the Vancouver-based rental listing site liv.rent posted data showing its platform had seen a 47-per -cent increase in activity compared to the previous year.

“Meanwhile, reports of suspicious listings have nearly tripled from the previous year,” the release reads.

CTV News has reached out to New Westminster police, as well as Rentals.ca, for more details about their investigation process into scams.

The person behind the fraudulent rental listing has not responded to an interview request.

McNamara’s house is no longer listed on Rentals.ca, though he worries it could happen again since he’s still trying to sell his property, and will likely need to repost photos on real estate websites.

The New Westminster Police Department says that, in this case, McNamara did the right thing by reporting the scam to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and contacting Rentals.ca.

“Website administrators are encouraged to act swiftly when these reports are made as to reduce the likelihood someone will fall victim to the scam,” the NWPD wrote in an email to CTV News Thursday.

According to police, investigations into scams are launched when “a resident shares they’ve been a victim … and have lost money or have been extorted.”

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