Rent scams are becoming increasingly common, raising a number of questions: how do these scams operate? Why is it students who are so often the victims? Are victims of these scams particularly naive, or are they lured into a false sense of security in using usually trustworthy websites? My own experience of being scammed through the TCD noticeboard proves that scammers are everywhere.
With students forced to battle it out against professionals and families, many look to TCD’s noticeboard. Recently, I posted an ad looking for a room to rent for the summer. One of the responses I received was from a 22 year-old Italian student who said she would soon be coming to Dublin to live in her parents’ flat and was looking for roommates to share with her. She was offering a double room on Molesworth Street for just €450 per month including all bills. The average rent I had encountered in Dublin 2 had been at least €600 so immediately my heart leapt. Reading the email a second time, I noticed she mentioned a €700 security deposit, which struck me as strange as I had thought deposits were normally to the value of a month’s rent, and none of the other replies I received had mentioned a deposit straight away. Cautiously, I proceeded to respond by asking a few questions about the room and why the security deposit was so high for a summer rental.
I received a reply from her the next day. She quickly agreed to drop the security deposit to €450 because of my short lease. The email contained numerous photos of a beautifully decorated and spacious apartment. It also included a long description of her which was quite poorly written. Most of it was about her studies and hobbies, but there were certain passages that seemed overly familiar. She spoke of eating in an Eritrean restaurant, how she would like to cook for us and detailed her recent holiday in Istanbul. I suddenly remembered the email a friend of mine had received last year when she placed an ad on the noticeboard. Her email was from a British man and similarly contained lots of weird personal information. I asked her to forward me the email and compared them; shockingly, entire passages of the email were identical to the description I had just received from the Italian student. I posted this revelation on my friend’s Facebook page and a mutual friend commented to say he too had posted an ad on the noticeboard and received an identical email.
The scammer was obviously using multiple email addresses and personas, so I decided that I would ‘go undercover’ and pretend I was interested. I asked when she would be in Dublin so I could meet her and see the apartment; she apologised and said she would not be here until May, but that I would need to pay her €900 for the deposit and first month’s rent as soon as possible to “secure my reservation.” She gave me her bank account details which were registered to a branch in Milan, and I was sent numerous forms including tenancy agreements and reservation documents. It struck me how official the whole process appeared at first glance and that I could find no obvious discrepancies in the information she gave me. Surely if there are documents to sign, it must be legit, right?
I contacted the firm to ask if they were aware of any apartments to rent at the address and they replied that it was a business property only.
I soon found an investment firm registered to the her address on Molesworth St. I contacted them to ask if they were aware of any apartments to rent at the address and they replied that it was a business property only. I finally had concrete evidence that she was lying to me so I decided it was time to confront her. I first asked if she could provide me any evidence that she was not scamming me, as I had been advised against sending money to a stranger. She replied to me saying how hurt she was that I could possibly think that she would scam me and she attached many photos of herself, including scans of her passport and her student ID card, to prove her identity. The ways scammers trick desperate students were becoming clear to me. It is relatively easy to suppress one’s niggling doubts when sent official looking documents and passport scans as ‘proof’. I told her I knew she was lying about the property. I have not heard back from her since.
Other students who posted on the TCD noticeboard had also been targeted. One girl received the same email I had, but ignored it as she was suspicious. However, another international student told me he had narrowly avoided sending €900 to a similar sounding scammer, as his friends advised him last minute against sending money to a stranger. He forwarded me the emails he had received; they were from a woman living in London who was offering a room on Townsend Street for €400 a month, but would not fly to Dublin for viewings without prior payment of a deposit to “discourage time wasters.” His correspondence with her followed the same pattern; he received fake tenancy documents and passport scans, and was asked to send money via Money Gram or bank transfer to an account in London. Whether this scammer was the same as the one who contacted me is unclear, but certainly someone, somewhere, appears to be watching our posts on the noticeboard, looking for potential targets.
Armed with all this information, I went into the Garda station to ask whether it was possible to report scams, and to find out what someone should do if they’ve been scammed. Unfortunately, the answers I got were not very hopeful. The Gardaí can only investigate a scam if money has actually been stolen and even in these cases, it is very unlikely that the money will be recoverable or that the scammer can be tracked down. Services like Money Gram and Western Union are virtually untraceable, and money transferred into banks gets bounced around so many different accounts that the paper trail is very difficult to follow. Their advice was to never send money to a stranger over the internet, and to always meet the landlord and view a property before handing over any money.
At this point I felt like more needed to be done to raise awareness of these scams, particularly among users of the noticeboard. There didn’t seem to be any proper system in place to report these scams to the college. I contacted College to ask about whether they knew about these scams and what they were doing to protect students. They responded saying that students who use the noticeboard do so at their own risk and that while they are aware of online rent scams, only two such incidents had been reported in the past ten years. They advised that students wishing to advertise only to others in college should select to post to the local noticeboard, and that those who post on the global noticeboard should cautious of any emails they receive. Finally, they said it was “under consideration” to include additional warnings on the noticeboard form warning students about scams and a reminder to exercise caution in regard to any responses they receive.
Online scams are more prevalent and cunning than I had previously thought. While we’re mostly all able to spot and ignore emails from the Prince of Nigeria, it’s easy to lose your senses when offered your dream apartment at an affordable price. Incoming first years or international students are particularly vulnerable. Always be vigilant, even when using trusted property websites such as the college’s noticeboard or Daft.ie. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Illustration: Emer Ó Cearbhaill