Students warned on flat ad scams
Adverts on websites like Gumtree are proving popular for scammers
Students looking for accommodation are being warned to beware of bogus landlords advertising on the internet.
Scotland Yard is telling would-be tenants of the dangers of sending money before seeing a property.
The scam typically involves bargain properties in adverts posted on free listing websites in student cities.
The "landlord" tells victims that the property can only be viewed if they give their bank account details. The money is then stolen.
The Metropolitan Police's Fraud Prevention Team has been monitoring the scams. In a review of a recent week's worth of reports on internet-related crime, it found almost a third involved this type of housing scam.
"Things to watch out for are adverts where there are no telephone numbers or where the only e-mail address is a free one - a Hotmail or Google e-mail address - where you're not sure really who you are dealing with," said Det Sgt Chris Felton.
Go to your universities, your student unions. They will have approved housing lists
Ben Whittaker, National Union of Students
Raj Singh, who recently came from Canada to London to start a law degree, was the victim of such a crime.
He thought he wouild have a rented flat waiting for him. But when he arrived in the UK, there was no property and he had been tricked out of the deposit.
"After going on a website I found a flat which was for £500 a month - the owner told me that I had to show two months' rent in a money transfer place. And once I had he would fly in to the UK and show me the place," explained Mr Singh.
But within hours of him transferring the money into what was meant to be a third party's account, it had vanished and the supposed landlord could not be contacted.
"That £1,000 was money I made from a part-time job. It was my lifeline. I now might have to share a room with two others to make sure my rent is not so high," he said.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has heard reports of the scam from across the country. They suggest students use their universities for guidance when looking for somewhere to live and not to feel rushed into deals.
"There are plenty of houses out there, plenty of stock," said Ben Whittaker of the NUS.
"Go to your universities, your student unions. They will have approved housing lists. Even if your hall of residents teams can't accommodate you they will often point you in the right direction."
Although the warning from the police is particularly aimed at students as the new term begins, it emphasises anyone using free listing websites should be wary.
The style of scam has also been seen in bogus car sales and holiday home lets.
"If you're being asked to send money upfront without being certain that property exists or the person has control of that property then you need to be very, very careful," Det Sgt Chris Felton said.
"Think once, think twice, ask some friends, get some advice and if you're ultimately not happy don't send any money," he said.
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