A scam preying on people desperate for housing in the private rented sector which they can afford has been exposed by staff at BHT’s Advice Centres in Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton, and colleagues at Citizens Advice in Eastbourne.
The criminals behind the scheme offer accommodation for rent and request a deposit up front, usually for several hundred Pounds, before the individual has seen the property. The property doesn’t exist, and the criminals and the deposits are not seen again.
My colleague, Veronica Tomlin from our Eastbourne Advice Centre, explained to me how the scam works:
“Mainly in papers like the Friday-Ad and Gumtree, ads showing one bed flats for a low amount of around the £450 mark normally, although they are starting to up the price on ones in Brighton, all furnished looking like show homes. They don’t show the outside of course, as it isn’t real, and some don’t show pictures at all.
“A lot of the email addresses are hard to track. In the beginning it was possible to track the IP address and we could see they were coming from America but any Hotmail addresses which are widely used do not show the original IP address. Therefore we cannot track them. We have picked up scams in Eastbourne, Hastings, Brighton and as far as Bristol in their Friday-Ad equivalent called Trade-it.”
Veronica and her colleagues emailed and received the same wording of two different types, which makes them easy to pick up as frauds. They have also had back the same names on some of them. Veronica said: “Once we receive the email, we report them and get the ad removed. Some of the obvious ones we get removed straight away without emailing them as they are quite easy to spot.
“Our clients are quite vulnerable and we don’t want them to fall into the trap of giving a deposit to these people, only to never see their money again, so it is important for us to get to them first.”
Our advice to people is to ask for three things and check them out for yourself. Even then we can’t guarantee everything is above board.
That there is an address and a picture of the outside of the property so you can actually go and see it
Make sure that the ‘landlord’ gives you a phone number and their address
Ask whether they are a member of a respectable and recognised body (such as the Southern Landlords Association) and of a rent deposit scheme.
Sometimes people question the value of advice services, but they not only resolve individual crises, prevent homelessness and help people into accommodation, they prevent people being ripped off, and they prevent the humiliation and hardship that scams like this cause.
This story is being covered by BBC South East at 6.30pm this evening (Monday 24th August 2015).