A Brighton housing charity has urged people looking for somewhere to rent to be aware of a new scam.
BHT said: “The criminals behind the scheme offer accommodation for rent and request a deposit up front, often amounting to many hundreds of pounds, before the individual has seen the property.
“The property doesn’t exist and the criminals and the deposits are not seen again.”
Veronica Tomlin, from BHT’s Eastbourne advice centre, explained 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.”
Ms Tomlin and her colleagues emailed and received the same wording of two different types, making it easier to pick them up as frauds. They have also had back the same names on some of them.
She 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.”
Alan Bruzon, from Eastbourne CAB, said: “CAB advised many people about a range of different scams and this one about rented properties has recently stood out.
“Our work in this area has two aspects – raising awareness to warn people about scams and how to stop them and helping people who have been affected.
“Often there is little we can do to advise on how money can be retrieved so raising awareness is key.
“We have a saying which applies to all scams: ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’
“In the case of these rental properties they are advertised at well below the market price and it is cashing in on how difficult it can be to find affordable housing in places like Eastbourne or Brighton.
“To avoid getting caught out, don’t hand over any money until you have met with the landlords and have seen the property, do what you can to verify their details, name, address, etc.
“And if you’re handing over money get receipts and think about what you would be able to do if things go wrong.
“Deposits by their very nature are usually not refundable so don’t be rushed into parting with cash until you feel confident.”
BHT chief executive Andy Winter said on his blog: “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.”
Anyone who has been scammed is urged to report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 to help stop it happening to others.
While it can be hard to recover money after a scam, especially if it was paid in cash, those who use credit and debit cards may have some protection.
BHT has also added two people to its senior management team.
Daniel O’Connell has been appointed as head of human resources, learning and development. He has worked in human resources and in leadership positions within councils and housing organisations for more than 20 years.
Jane Eyles has been appointed as the head of housing services. She has worked in housing for almost 30 years for councils and housing associations. She is a board member of another small housing association and is an expert on tenant involvement.
Mr Winter said: “I am delighted that BHT has attracted two senior managers of such exceptional quality. They will add depth to our already strong management team.”