Warning about ‘cloned’ properties, with students and holidaymakers are particularly at risk
Accommodation fraud jumped by 30pc last year, with more than €500,000 being stolen in rental scams which largely target people under the age of 25, gardaí have warned.
Students and holidaymakers are particularly at risk when seeking accommodation or holiday rentals in Ireland and abroad, and the urgency for a student or their family to get accommodation at the end of a summer is a particular target for criminals.
As part of its Fraud Awareness Week, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) today highlighted the risks of accommodation fraud, and issued advice on the red flags people should look out for when booking accommodation.
Almost 50pc of victims are aged under 25, with 58pc female and 42pc male. The typical amount of money lost in each scam is between €2,500 and €5,000. But gardaí say the victims are mostly people who cannot afford to lose this sort of value of money.
“We are warning people to be extra vigilant when looking for accommodation, particularly now at a time when society and foreign travel has opened up again. Successful accommodation fraudsters convince their targets, from the young to the middle-aged, to pay a deposit, and sometimes even rent in advance, for accommodation that either doesn’t exist or does exist but isn’t for rent, leaving them stranded and out of pocket,” said Inspector Steven Meighan of the GNECB.
“With long-term rentals, fraudsters target people who are often under pressure because they need to find accommodation quickly in a particular area or within a specific budget.
“Targets are usually under 25 and students who are seeking rentals at a time when demand for properties is high. The situation can be made even worse if the student is a foreign national; they may already be paying high rates for temporary accommodation or they could have arranged everything online, playing directly into the hands of the fraudsters.
“With short-term rentals the targets are generally middle-aged and the rental scams involve holiday rentals, and these are likely to become more prevalent in the months ahead with foreign travel opening up again. In the majority of these cases, the victim will have spotted an advert on social media and will have communicated with the fraudster only via social media or WhatsApp,” he added.
Insp Meighan highlighted one case currently under investigation where a family unknowingly let out its rental accommodation to a criminal for a weekend, and that person then used that opportunity to photograph the property and make a professional looking ad on social media which they used to effectively sub-let the property to an innocent family who took a six-month lease on it.
“The family arrived at the property where they thought they would be living for six months and the owners were not expecting them and did not know anything about the letting,” said Insp Meighan.
He said the red flags to look out for when booking accommodation are if the rent seems too good to be true; the listing contains grammar or spelling mistakes and is on social media; all communication is only via WhatsApp or social media; the landlord says they are away and can’t meet you to show you the accommodation; payment is requested immediately before signing a lease; payment is requested in cash/PayPal/wire transfer/iTunes gift cards/ cryptocurrency; or the account to pay into is in a different country.
He said any IBAN bank details supplied for payment can be checked using free online checking tools which will show where the bank account is based.
“You might ask yourself why a person living in Cork and letting out a property there would have a bank account based in the UK or Holland or anywhere abroad. These are all red flags,” Insp Meighan said.
The advice on booking accommodation is to only use recognised letting agencies, but there was also a warning that websites can be cloned too, so people are urged to check the URL address for the site to ensure it’s a real website.
The GNECB also warn people to be wary of social media adverts or landlords who will only communicate via social media, and for people to make sure the property exists and ask questions about it, and disengage immediately if the responses are vague.
“Only use trusted money transfer systems such as credit cards. Never transfer money using methods that can’t be reversed such as cash, direct bank transfers, cryptocurrency, PayPal, wire services such as Western Union, and iTunes gift cards,” said Insp Meighan.
“Do a landlord check through the Residential Tenancies Board website, and if booking a holiday rental use a booking agent or hotel website directly, or make sure any third-party websites are secure,” he added.
Gardaí also advised members of the public who believe they are a victim of accommodation fraud to contact any Garda station and report the crime.
“Some might feel embarrassed at having been scammed, but the victim is not at fault. It is better to report these crimes, and the earlier the better. Sometimes it is possible to stop the money going into the criminal’s pockets if it is caught early, and we can also use any phone numbers or email addresses to monitor for future activities of criminals and hopefully prevent other innocent people falling victim to fraud,” said Insp Meighan.