Police investigating several reports of rental fraud in district of the Ontario university
An international student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario says she was eager to settle into new housing ahead of the fall semester, but was stripped of her savings and is fighting poor mental health after falling victim to a rental scam.
"Before, I had one problem: Finding a place. But now, I have two problems: Finding a place and getting my money back … I can't focus on my studies," said Armina Soleymani, who moved to Ontario from Iran three years ago to pursue her PhD in systems design engineering.
Soleymani's experience comes following a slew of warnings by the Waterloo Regional Police Service, and as officers confirm they're probing multiple reports of rental fraud in the university area this month.
Soleymani said she began searching for a new rental unit near the university about two months ago in order to secure a place before her current lease expires Aug. 31.
How it happened
Earlier this month, she found an online listing from someone calling themself a tenant through a Facebook group that's popular among students. The woman said she wanted to sublet a unit at a building on Columbia Street West in Waterloo. Soleymani arranged an in-person appointment to meet with the woman on Aug. 6.
Soleymani said the woman, who claimed she was a student, gave her a tour of the furnished unit, and then they signed a lease agreement.
She said the woman requested that Soleymani pay $2,000 in cash to cover first and last month's rent and a key deposit.
"I got suspicious and asked her for her ID," said Soleymani. "I asked her to come down in front of the building's main entrance door where there were two security cameras and I paid her."
Soleymani said the woman gave her a key, which turned out to be fake, and was told it would work on the move-in day, so there was no opportunity to try it out beforehand to see if it would gain her access to the building.
Soleymani also said she kept in touch with the woman through Facebook, but after a few days, she noticed the woman's Facebook page had been deleted. When Soleymani went to check on the unit, she happened upon a building manager, who advised her she had been scammed by the woman and there were other victims.
From what Soleymani understands, the woman didn't actually live there. She also understands, based on what the building manager told her, that the woman had been subletting the unit herself from another person who was subletting it.
It's uncertain who actually lives there. CBC News reached out to the current and former property management company to clarify details, but did not hear back in time for publication.
Soleymani said she immediately reached out to local police and campus administration.
The Waterloo Regional Police Service told CBC it can't comment on specific cases, but confirmed it was investigating a report of rental fraud in the university district that occurred on Aug. 6 and 7.
Police said they were contacted by three people who had fallen victim to scams after responding to online ads offering an apartment sublet.
"The individuals met with the suspect in person before the victims paid the suspect to rent the apartment. The victims later learned that the rental property was a scam and did not receive responses when they attempted to contact the suspect again," police said in a news release.
Police are now looking for a female suspect, about 5-foot-2, with long brown hair. Anyone with information is encouraged to come forward or submit an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or online.
The University of Waterloo says it is aware of Soleymani's situation and is doing what it can to help.
"Fortunately she has done many of the right things already, but we are very sorry to learn that despite her best efforts and taking precautions to protect herself, she has found herself in a difficult situation," Nick Manning, associate vice-president communications, said in an emailed statement to CBC News.
Continuing to investigate reports of rental scams in the University District in Waterloo. <br><br>Anyone with information is asked to call police or <a href="https://twitter.com/WaterlooCrime?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WaterlooCrime</a>. <br><br>More here: <a href="https://t.co/jxMfsgGUYt">https://t.co/jxMfsgGUYt</a><br><br>Occ: 22-190568 (915) <a href="https://t.co/mEf1XXxghY">pic.twitter.com/mEf1XXxghY</a>
The university offers emergency loans and bursaries for students experiencing hardships. Soleymani confirmed the school has offered her a $2,000 bursary.
Soleymani has requested a housing unit on campus, but is on a wait list. Manning said the wait list exists as a result of a large number of residence applications.
Targeting 'desperate' students
Soleymani said she believes scammers go out of their way to target international students or those scrambling to find a place weeks before school.
"During this time, students are desperate, they just want to find a place," she said. "I think right now I realize several [red] flags, but I was under the pressure of finding a place. When your priority is to protect yourself from being homeless, you can't focus on other things.
"There are lots of international students … that are looking for a place with no success … We have no choice other than to trust people and I know for many other students who come from overseas, there's no choice but using online applications," she added, noting language barriers also make the process more challenging.
Soleymani said the situation has impacted her mental health, and left her unable to focus on her studies and research. She hopes her story will raise awareness and help others.
"I just want to warn the other students. I don't want anyone to experience the same situation."
Waterloo Regional Police issued safety tips and considerations for people seeking housing that can be found here.
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