It doesn’t happen very often but, if it succeeds, it can be devastating to those affected. I’m talking about rental scams whereby fake “landlords” con prospective tenants into paying money upfront for a property which does not exist.
The scam usually works like this. The fraudster posts an advert for a property to let on a classified ads website or in the press. The property address may be genuine but it is posted under a fake ID and using photographs usually taken from other property ads. When a prospective tenant enquires about viewing the property they are told that the landlord lives some distance from the property and is happy to arrange a viewing but wants to be sure that he is not wasting his time. The landlord asks for the tenant to prove his/her good faith by wiring a sum of money – usually one month’s rent – to a friend (perhaps another house mate) using a money transfer service. The “landlord” assures them that there is no risk in this because they are only transferring the money to a friend. When they have made the transfer, they are asked to scan the confirmation receipt or email the details of the transaction to the “landlord”, who promises he will then show them the apartment.
In most cases, the fraudster lives abroad and uses the transaction details to withdraw the money from his local money transfer office. It is presumed he does this by altering the scanned receipt in some way. Some money transfer services require few checks for small sums.
The property, of course, is not owned by the fraudster and the tenants never hear from him again.
Such scams are hard to detect but the signs to look out for are:
- fraudsters use addresses that they know are desirable, perhaps to attract potential tenants, perhaps simply because these are locations they have heard of – Kensington, Chelsea, Islington, Camden, Hampstead are common in the London area.
- properties often seem unusually cheap for the area (if it seems too good to be true…)
- photographs seem unusually professional – the interior sometimes resembles a hotel room, with soft lighting, cushions on the bed etc. This may be because the photos are indeed pictures of hotel rooms or show properties.
- no one answers the phone or the number given is wrong.
- the “landlord’s” email address is from an easy-to-set-up email program such as gmail, hotmail or yahoo.
The scam affects many property advertising sites, as well as printed classified papers. Even those sites that charge for adverts are not immune since the fraudsters have ready access to stolen credit card details and can easily pay for services online.
Remember the two golden rules:
(1) if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
(2) never hand over money for a property before viewing it.