Amy Gibbons and two friends were delighted last week when they found a listing on a property website for a house in Galway city that looked pretty decent. It was within their price range and they were even more relieved when the landlord made contact and confirmed the house was still available to rent.
But their delight and relief turned to dismay and horror within 48 hours after they handed over more than €2,500 to secure the property only to find out they had fallen victim to an elaborate scam.
They are not the only ones to have suffered at the hands of scam artists exploiting the housing crisis and others appear to have been conned by criminals who have been advertising multiple bogus properties on legitimate websites.
The scam artists use pictures of properties pulled indiscriminately from the internet as bait and are also relying on Covid-19 restrictions to lend legitimacy to their crimes.
“The lease on our house is up so we were looking for somewhere to live for the start of June,” Gibbons says.
“We saw this house and made contact with the landlord. He told us the house was still available and suggested we talk through the details on WhatsApp and we said ‘sound’ ”.
Over WhatsApp messages they were asked for details of where they worked, proof of earnings and ID – all things which are commonly asked of prospective tenants.
“We gave all our details and that was that,” Gibbons says. “We have to move out of our house this weekend so we were very relieved to have found somewhere to live.”
The landlord identifying himself as “Lauren O’Sullivan” explained that while he owned the house in Galway, he could not show it to them in person because he was abroad and could not travel to Ireland as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.
“He said that to make the transaction more secure for them and us, we could carry out the transaction on Airbnb. I have done long term rentals on Airbnb before so I thought it was fine.
“The landlord sent a link through WhatsApp and gave us 24 hours to pay the deposit. They kept saying ‘you need to do it now’ but we didn’t think much of him pressing for time, properties are hard to get, so that was fine.”
It was a long way from fine.
‘Getting too messy’
Gibbons and her friends followed the link the landlord had sent and reserved the property. “I don’t know how we missed this but once we had reserved it on the site we got a booking form and details of a bank account to send the money to. We were directed off 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 Airbnb had changed the Iban by mistake and we would need to send the money again. I said no as it was getting too messy. I said we would not resend the money until the original money was refunded. That is when the alarm bells started ringing.”
Gibbons asked to see the communication from Airbnb about the changed Iban number but that request was ignored. Instead she was sent a link by the supposed landlord to what the landlord said was an Airbnb chat function.
The link led not to Airbnb but to a bogus site which had been dressed up to look like Airbnb. “We were trying not to believe we had been scammed but the person on the chat was saying exactly the same thing as the landlord and their English wasn’t great,” she continues.
They made contact with Airbnb who confirmed almost immediately that the site they had been directed to was fake. “We were told to contact our bank. Then the bank told us to contact the guards.”
Before doing that, they decided to swing by the house they thought they had rented.
“It was in Renmore near GMIT. So we called out to see if the people in the house knew ‘Lauren O’Sullivan’. A woman answered and said she had been living there for two years and didn’t know ‘Lauren O’Sullivan’. She actually 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 scam artist reveals that Gibbons and her friends are not the only people who have been duped by the individuals behind the criminal enterprise.
Social media platforms and forums contain multiple references to the same name and number although the locations of the supposed properties changed.
Scams involving rental properties are not new.
Typically they seek to take advantage of students and exploit the Irish housing crisis and a scarcity of properties to convince people to agree to leases online before actually viewing properties.
Money is either transferred via an electronic transfer network such as Western Union or deposited in so-called mule accounts unconnected to the criminals before being transferred to accounts overseas.
Given the cross-border nature of the activity and the anonymity of the criminals, it is very hard for law enforcement, either in this country or others to apprehend those behind the crime.
Gardaí and multiple housing bodies have repeatedly warned people never to hand over money without actually seeing a property and to always be cautious of landlords who claim to be outside the country and cannot show you the property but still request a deposit.