When Martene Sementilli and her husband purchased a town home in Amherstburg, Ont., they were hoping to give their children a leg up in the housing market years from now.
Instead, the couple will sell their property this summer after their tenants allegedly defrauded them, resulting in criminal charges from the Windsor Police Service. The couple says it has cost them thousands of dollars.
"Watching the housing market change so drastically from when we entered, we just wanted to give our children something that they were going to be able to leverage when the time came," said Sementilli, who owns the property with her husband Dan.
After purchasing the home in November 2021, they signed a lease with their current tenants in October 2022.
Their rental application looked good, Sementilli said, and references checked out.
"In fact, they got a glowing reference from their former landlord …and truth be told, while I did follow up on their other references as well, I put the most stock in the former landlord," Sementilli said.
"We felt really comfortable at that point. Very shortly after they moved in, things started going sideways … So we started digging."
Sementilli said they received rent in November and December 2022, but both payments were late. They haven't received any money since January 2023, Sementilli alleges. CBC has contacted the tenants for comment on this story.
Martene and Dan Sementilli own a rental property in Amherstburg. Windsor police have laid fraud charges after they alleged their tenants completed a fraudulent rental application. (Submitted by Martene Sementilli)
Though they called the previous landlord and other references, Sementilli said in April she visited the previous rental in person — only to discover the "landlord" she'd spoken with wasn't the owner of the property.
"Unfortunately, she had a very similar story to ours."
Other references also turned out to be different people answering the phone, Sementilli said.
The Sementillis had a hearing earlier this month at the Landlord and Tenant Board, where their tenants were given an eviction order. Sementilli said they were able to secure an expedited hearing — more than four months after they filed their application — because of demonstrated financial hardship.
Tenants charged with fraud over $5,000
Sementilli said they approached the Windsor Police Service because of the allegedly fraudulent rental application. A copy of a Windsor police report shows police have laid charges of fraud over $5,000.
"If they weren't paying their rent but they had filled out an accurate application, I would not have had any recourse to lay criminal charges," Sementilli said. "The only reason the criminal charges were able to be laid was because they obtained the lease agreement under false pretences."
It's left the family paying two mortgages, something Sementilli said is "unsustainable" in this economy.
"At this point, as soon as our tenants are out, we have no choice but to sell our investment," Sementilli said. "They have ensured that we've already lost the investment that we've worked very hard to attain.
"We're hopeful that we're going to get our property back at the end of the month. But we've been on such a rollercoaster that we're kind of like, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'"
Other types of rental fraud more common: Expert
But this isn't the only type of rental fraud out there.
Earlier this month, LaSalle police warned a woman had been arrested for fraud after accepting first and last month's rent from three different tenants — who discovered the alleged fraud after showing up on move-in day.
"These individuals had all responded to a Facebook marketplace ad for a House for rent," LaSalle police said in a statement.
Sign outside West End Vancouver apartment building advertising places for rent. (David Horemans/CBC)
The type of fraud that happened to the Sementillis is relatively uncommon, said one anti-fraud expert.
Most often, it's tenants who are the ones defrauded, often by people posing as landlords, said Jeff Horncastle, acting communications outreach officer with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
Most commonly, rental fraud scams emerge after a property has recently been for sale, meaning there are high-quality images online fraudsters can use to create a rental ad.
From there, the rental will typically be priced below market average, to contribute to a sense of urgency for prospective tenants in a tightening rental market.
"People are going to respond to the ads. They're asked in a lot of cases to fill out forms with a lot of personal information, including their social insurance number or driver's licence, which puts them at risk for identity fraud," Horncastle said.
"Because there's only limited housing available, from the victim's perspective, they're in a hurry to try to solidify that rental unit as well."
This type of fraud happened to Paul McNamara, a former Vancouver Police Department officer in financial crimes.
McNamara said he was contacted by a friend, who saw his house for rent while the friend was looking for a property. It was nearly the exact situation Horncastle said is all too common — McNamara had recently listed the house for sale.
McNamara said he filed complaints with the rental platform, and actually engaged the alleged scammers in a back and forth online. Eventually, the listing for McNamara's home was taken down.
One of the best things people can do to prevent rental fraud is trust their own instincts, McNamara said.
"Don't forget we battle social norms," he said. "Where you feel like you have to be nice with somebody, you have to act in a certain way to feel like you're not, you know, being weird," McNamara said.
"I think a lot of people know when something's not right. But they don't question themselves."
Horncastle said $722,000 was lost to rental scams in Canada last year, down slightly from $884,000 in 2021.
But the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates just five to 10 per cent of victims ever report their cases, likely because of shame, Horncastle said.
Reports to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre suggest there is no one type of person at risk, he said.
"It's highly due to the market, the way it is right now with the low supply of rental units out there and the high demand," Horncastle said. "That's a huge factor, but unfortunately all demographics are at risk."
Unfortunately, it's tough to get your money back once you've been the victim of a scam. The number one way to combat rental fraud is awareness, Horncastle said.
"That's more reason why we focus on fraud prevention and education as a number one tool to fight fraud," Horncastle said.