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Housing shortages fuel international student scams

A lack of affordable accommodation in Canada is making international students vulnerable to housing scams, a student housing cooperative has warned. 

Canadian police are investigating rental scams after three students spent thousands of dollars on phoney accommodation. Photo: Unsplash.

Accommodation fraud in Ireland has increased by 30% so far this year

It comes as Canadian police investigate rental scams after three students spent thousands of dollars on phoney accommodation. 

Iranian PhD student Armina Soleymani told the Toronto Star in August that she handed over $2,000 for a deposit on an apartment she had found on Facebook and viewed in person – only for the scammer to disappear with her money. 

Soleymani, who is enrolled at the University of Waterloo, later found out that the woman who had shown her the apartment was a “subletter of a subletter” and that other students had been victims of the same scam. 

Local police confirmed that they are investigating several reports of rental fraud in Waterloo’s university district and urged students to “be suspicious” of any attempts to complete deals quickly. 

Nathi Zamisa, program director at non-profit student housing organisation HOUSE Canada, said that the organisation was aware of scammers targeting students on Facebook and blamed the rise in this type of fraud on the lack of affordable student housing in Canada. 

“Soleymani’s story isn’t only about how students are ‘desperate’ for housing,” Zamisa said. “It’s about how 50 years of government inaction on affordable student housing inadvertently creates vulnerabilities for students and young adults navigating the Canadian housing market.”

Earlier this year, one Ontario student union warned that the sale of university properties to private developers, who often focus on “high-end” student accommodation, meant that students were struggling to find affordable housing. 

“Governments, colleges, and universities are pushing students into the private rental market — especially international students”

“Instead of helping students find housing, or building housing that students can actually afford, governments, colleges, and universities are pushing students into the private rental market — especially international students,” Zamisa said, explaining that higher tuition fees and a cap on working hours exacerbate the issues for foreign students in Canada. 

Zamisa called for “immigration policies that allow students to earn a living wage as they learn, and that bridges the gap between academic and the workforce”.

Nick Manning, associate vice-president for communication at the University of Waterloo, said, “In recent weeks, we’ve heard many stories about the difficulties some of our students have experienced in finding suitable accommodation in Waterloo region. Regrettably, as we’ve all seen in the news in recent times, the rental housing market across Canada is experiencing difficulties and scarcity of affordable solutions.”

Manning said the university has a range of support for students in place including a partnership with Places4Students and a residence guarantee for first year students who meet certain conditions. 

Universities in other countries are warning of similar scams as they struggle to accommodate increasing international and domestic student populations. 

Irish police have urged students to be vigilant as accommodation fraud has increased by 30% so far this year, compared to 2019. 

In the Netherlands, where a lack of student housing is also an issue, some respondents to the Annual International Student Survey said that they had encountered scams in their search for accommodation. 

Speaking to The PIE last month, Joram van Velzen, president of the Dutch Student Union, said, “Because of the precarious position, international students also regularly are the victim of scams. Sometimes they are being charged illegal fees, suffer intimidation from malicious landlords or find out that the room they’ve paid for in advance does not exist.”

Meanwhile, international students in both Canada and Australia have also been warned about telephone scams, unrelated to accommodation. 

The Canadian anti-fraud centre said on its website that the Asian community in Canada is being targeted by intimidating phone calls pretending to be from government representatives and police. 

The University of Waterloo said that members of its “own community” have been targeted, while the Australian National University also confirmed that what it called a “sophisticated scam” was targeting its students. 

“The scammers are posing as government officials demanding students transfer large sums of money, and threatening deportation and imprisonment if they don’t,” an ANU spokesperson said. “Students should note that no Australian government officials will ask for this information from students or make these kind of threats.”

Earlier this year, two international students in Northern Ireland were scammed out of £105,000 via phone calls from individuals posing as Chinese government officials. 

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