Cyber criminals are taking advantage of people looking to rent quality accommodation at a decent price. AASMA DAY finds out how fraudsters are targeting students in particular with accommodation scams.
If something looks like it’s too good to be true, chances are it probably is.
Fraudsters are using the Internet to dupe people into thinking they can rent a flat or house for a cut-price deal and entice them with attractive photographs of the property and its rooms.
But in reality, the rental room or property doesn’t actually exist - or if it does, it isn’t owned by the scammer whose only aim is to trick victims from parting with their cash.
Dr Richard Clayton, director of Cambridge Cybercrime Centre who gave a talk at a cybercrime conference held at the University of Central Lancashire, says there are many variations of accommodation scams.
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He explains: “These fraudsters are usually targeting young people looking for accommodation – often students.
“It is not necessarily possible for students to view accommodation before they rent it, especially if they are coming from overseas and are unfamiliar with how letting works in the UK.
“There are different forms of the scam. Sometimes, it is a real flat and you might be able to look at it from the outside or view it on Google maps.
“Another form of the scam is that the flat does not really exist at all and the fraudster cobbles together photos from legitimate renting sites to create a fictitious flat. In these cases, they take random photographs of different places and you could have a living room from Dublin and a bedroom in Birmingham pretending to be rooms in a flat in Preston.
“The purported landlord attempts to scam money in different ways.
“Either they suggest the potential renter pays a fee for a viewing and assures them this will be refunded if they decide to take the flat up or they ask for a month’s rent up front.
“Another version of the scam involves people demonstrating they have enough money to pay the rent.
“The fraudster does a scam where they ask you to send money equalling a month’s rent to a friend using something like Western Union which your friend can later collect and return to you and for you to send them a scan or photocopy of the Western Union paperwork showing you have the money available.
“People do this thinking it is safe as they believe only someone with their friend’s name will be able to collect the money.
“But that is not true. For the sorts of amounts we are talking – £800 or £1,000 – all you need to collect the money is on the Western Union paperwork.
“You don’t need a driving licence or passport.
“When the friend goes to collect the money, they discover someone has already collected it on behalf of the fraudster.
“We had 50 or 60 incidents like this over a couple of years in Cambridge but this is happening up and down the country and occasionally people have appeared before the courts for it.
“However, a lot of the times, the criminals are in countries like West Africa. Although there has to be someone in the UK to pick up the money, the scam can often be actually run from thousands of miles away.
“Yet another version of the accommodation scam is when the scammer tells the person wanting to rent the flat that it belongs to a friend who has gone travelling to China for work and unfortunately, they have accidentally taken the keys with them.
“They then ask for a fee to have the keys sent by courier before the viewing.
“This is only a £50 scam but if the fraudster does this numerous times, they can make a lot of money.
“And once you have paid them the money, they will go on to invent another problem to get more money out of you.
“The advice to students is: if you are renting somewhere, you should not be charged until you have seen the flat and agreed to move in.”
Angela Frodsham, UCLan’s accommodation services manager, said: “We are aware that cybercrime in relation to bogus private student accommodation is on the increase nationally and at the university we remain vigilant to it.
“We have had no reported incidents of this in Preston for many years and one of the key reasons for this is because we can offer all new students a place in university-owned or leased accommodation.
“These residences are located close to the heart of the main campus and advertised on our accommodation website: www.uclan.ac.uk/accommodation/index.php
“Our students can apply to live in UCLan halls for all years of study, however, for those who want to live in private accommodation such as shared houses we always advise them to access the UCLan Studentpad website, where all landlords are registered and accommodation advertised here has been vetted by our own staff. The site itself is password protected.
“Whenever our accommodation staff give talks to prospective students, we strongly advise students to apply for university accommodation in the first place.
“We also advise students to come and talk to us before they start to look for any private accommodation and to be extremely cautious when browsing private accommodation on unregistered online forums. They should never sign or agree to a private housing contract before seeing the property in person and should avoid handing over personal and financial information.”