Flat hunting online is like entering the Wild West naked without a gun. Wearing a blindfold. With your hands tied behind your back.
The flat-offered adverts are bad enough – they offer non-existent homes for a massive upfront deposit, sometimes (as I’ve written about previously) from a ‘pastor’ who is much too busy preaching in (yes, sadly) Nigeria. Pay him upfront and praise the lord, he will courier the keys…
Then there’s the ‘blind’ landlady, promising to arrive with her carer and sort out the legalities. It’s just that she can’t quite make it, and could you transfer the massive deposit anyway? Or you could just open your window, fold the cash into little origami birds and scatter them into the wind. Either really.
The worst abuses are found when tenants place flat-wanted ads. Scamsters are getting better at pretending to be real people, choosing European names, inventing complicated ruses for not being around, encouraging a huge upfront deposit, security bond, rent in advance and fee (I know!) can be sent through. They used to give up when asked for a fast viewing, but nowadays have a brass neck and press ahead with creative, complex excuses about why they are overseas.
One told me they were working as a diplomat in Hungary. They trusted me instinctively and suggested I wired my money to their PA in Geneva, who would forward the documents. I think they were aiming a bit high, as why would a high flying diplomat live in a scuzzy flat-share? The flat descriptions are giveaway to the wise: pasted in from websites, estate terminology and all. The pictures of the flat were obviously of an hotel. Then they changed the pictures, to a luxury flat way out of my league, and too good to be true for the price.
Another was just so pleased to find someone like me, who they could trust to sort things out quickly, and would send the keys when I had wired the money. Isn’t that nice?
It’s funny how hard they try, and how the weave their way in and out of truth. It stops being funny when you realise that people are unaware of these scams and send the money. One friend was caught out in London by a thief who had even set up a website, and ended up stranded with nowhere to stay.
It’s no laughing matter for innocents who pay upfront, subsequently arriving in a strange place with nowhere else to go. It doesn’t matter how many warnings are posted, as these parasites can still pass for legit and go on to winch in vulnerable home-hunters.
Especially in London, housing is scarce, and rents are rising. People might be new and one step away from a hostel when looking for a home. They might not be thinking straight, and when fraudsters can convincingly pass for legal, the result is a huge, yet silent tide of misery. I wonder how many millions have been siphoned away from the bank accounts of needy, desperate people. This scam is causing so much real harm.