Friends lose € 2,600 in rental scam

Amy Gibbons and two friends were elated last week when they found an ad on a real estate website for a house in Galway City that looked pretty decent. It was in their price range and they were even more relieved when the owner contacted and confirmed that the house was still available for rent.

But their joy and relief turned to dismay and horror within 48 hours of handing over over € 2,500 to secure the property only to find they had been the victims of an elaborate scam.

They are not the only ones to have suffered at the hands of crooks exploiting the housing crisis and others appear to have been duped by criminals who advertised several bogus properties on legitimate websites.

The crooks are using images of properties indiscriminately snatched from the internet as bait and are also relying on Covid-19 restrictions to legitimize their crimes.

“Our lease for our house has ended, so we were looking for a place to live for the start of June,” says Gibbons.

“We have seen this house and made contact with the owner. He told us the house was still available and suggested we discuss the details on WhatsApp and we said ‘sound’.

On WhatsApp messages, they were asked for details of where they worked, proof of income, and ID – all of the things that are commonly asked of potential tenants.

“We gave all of our details and that’s it,” says Gibbons. “We have to leave our house this weekend, so we were very relieved to have found a place to live. “

The owner identifying himself as “Lauren O’Sullivan” explained that although he owned the house in Galway, he could not show it to them in person as he was abroad and could not travel to Ireland due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“He said that to make the transaction safer for them and for us, we could do the transaction on Airbnb. I’ve done long term rentals on Airbnb before so thought it was fine.

“The owner sent a link via WhatsApp and gave us 24 hours to pay the deposit. They kept saying “you have to do it now”, but we didn’t think much of him rushing for time, properties are hard to come by so that was good.

It was far from being good.

“Becoming too messy”

Gibbons and his friends followed the link the owner sent and booked the property. “I don’t know how we missed this, but once we booked it on the site we got a booking form and the details of a bank account to send the money to. We were directed to what we thought was the Airbnb site.

The friends sent the money to the account, a total of € 2,656.

“Then we got a message saying that Airbnb had changed the Iban by mistake and we needed to send the money again. I said no because it was getting too complicated. I said we would not return the money until the original money has been refunded. That’s when the alarm bells started ringing.

Gibbons requested to see Airbnb’s communication regarding the Iban number change, but that request was ignored. Instead, the supposed owner sent her a link to what the owner said was an Airbnb chat feature.

The link did not lead to Airbnb but to a fake site that had been dressed up to look like Airbnb. “We were trying not to believe that we had been ripped off, but the person on the chat was saying the exact same thing as the owner and his English was not great,” she continues.

They contacted Airbnb who almost immediately confirmed that the site they had been directed to was bogus. “We were told to contact our bank. Then the bank told us to contact the guards.

Before that, they decided to go through the house they thought they had rented.

“It was in Renmore near GMIT. So we called to see if people in the house knew “Lauren O’Sullivan”. A woman responded and said she had lived there for two years and did not know “Lauren O’Sullivan”. In fact, she owned the house and lived there with her family. She had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.

A Google search of the name and number used by the scammer reveals that Gibbons and his friends were not the only people to have been duped by the individuals behind the criminal enterprise.

Operation

Social media platforms and forums contain multiple references to the same name and number although the location of the alleged properties has changed.

Rental property scams are not new.

Typically, they seek to take advantage of students and exploit the Irish housing crisis and scarcity of properties to convince people to accept leases online before seeing properties.

The money is either transferred through an electronic transfer network such as Western Union, or deposited in so-called mule accounts not connected to criminals before being transferred to accounts abroad.

Given the cross-border nature of the activity and the anonymity of the criminals, it is very difficult for law enforcement, whether in this country or elsewhere, to apprehend the perpetrators of the crime.

Gardaí and several housing organizations have repeatedly warned people to never hand over money without actually seeing a property and always beware of owners who claim to be overseas and cannot show you the property but ask when even a deposit.

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