As students have struggled to find accommodation in a housing market where demand for living far outpaces supply, scammers have begun posing as landlords on social media to con prospective purchasers into sending them advance fees for properties that are either nonexistent or have already been rented out.
Recent cases of rental fraud, which Police Scotland say have accounted for losses of upwards of £12,000, have led to various police investigations, The Courier reports.
“My worry is that people are losing out on money – money they can ill afford whilst at Uni,” says Police Constable (PC) Larna Fox, a longtime officer who becomes the University Community Officer this week.
Often, the scam begins on social media. Letting agencies have begun using Facebook as a main point of advertising for available properties, on account of both overcrowded mail lists and practicality. This increased use of technology allows for properties to be advertised on social media, and in many cases, on Facebook and WhatsApp, where it is easy to impersonate a seller.
While some scammers demand money immediately, others ease into it by asking for personal information, victims said, in a tact to appear more genuine. In some cases, scammers proceed to collect not only rent and deposit, but passport or visa documents.
PC Fox adds that some students have been misled into renting out council and local authority flats, which cannot legally be leased out and leave students without a tenancy agreement to protect them in the case of a problem. “You’re not protected at all, you have no rights at all, which you should have as a tenant”, Fox says.
The Saint spoke to two students affected by housing scams, whose names have been changed for privacy reasons, to understand how the fraudsters tried to dupe them.
Lily, a third-year student, was scammed by a Facebook account under the name of ‘Pete Ford’ into paying over £300 for a falsely advertised one-bedroom flat on Market Street.
She says that the flat was fraudulently advertised by a private landlord on Facebook in a post that included high quality pictures of the flat, its rent, and other information typically included in posts promoting available properties. She adds that the post was taken down almost minutes after being put up due to too many applications – but there was nothing unusual about that in such a hot market.
When the fake landlord sent over a contract, Lily said that “it looked super legit.” In order to ensure that she would get the property, ‘Pete Ford’ asked for all her personal info, which she had quickly sent over.
Lily returned the contract and paid the ‘landlord’ £300 through ‘Transferwise’ since she was using an American account. “It prevents you from tracing,” she said, “which I should have paid attention to.”
The landlord set a date for her to move in, telling her to meet him at the flat, where he would acquaint her with the property and get her settled. But when she showed up and rang the doorbell, a woman opened the door. When Lily explained she was supposed to move in, the woman said she had no idea what Lily was talking about. “It was kind of traumatising,” Lily said.
Lily ended up finding another one-bedroom flat a few weeks later through a reliable agency. But the scammer had seemingly put out her information somewhere on the internet. She received suspicious emails for weeks after, which she guesses the scammer may have sold or otherwise distributed. “It felt like an invasion,” Lily said, “he had all my information.
Another student, Jane, says that she and her flatmates were almost tricked into paying a £3000 deposit for a three-bedroom property that a fake landlord advertised over Facebook last spring. She says that she saw a post on Facebook for a three-bedroom property on City Road advertised by Lawson & Thompson last spring. Because it was the end of first year and most were beginning to look for private accommodation, she was excited to have found something early on.
Jane and her flatmate googled the flat and the photos were ‘great.’ They expressed their interest and began messaging the potential landlord on WhatsApp. But the scammer pursuing Jane was not quite so polished as Lily’s appeared to be. “[Their profile picture] was so creepy,” she said. “We actually now use it as our flat group chat profile picture.”
The scammer also struggled to fit the landlord demographic in other ways. “They were trying to play it as if they’re a 60 or 70-year old man, except when texting they [weren’t] using any punctuation or capital letters, which is such a Gen-Z thing,” she said, adding that they were “using a lot of ellipses,” and being aggressive in his communication.
But despite the red flags, “we were being hopeful and giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Jane said. To verify the landlord’s identity and the variety of his offer, Jane said that she and her flatmate tried to call him. “He wouldn’t pick up and he’d be like, ‘sorry, my reception is really bad,’ or ‘I can’t talk, text me if you have any other questions.’”
Jane tried to verify if the landlord was legitimate by asking for his registration number – which they provided and checked out online. Because most letting agencies have all their landlords’ names and registration numbers online, this scammer was smart enough to use one of them in an attempt to be more credible. “But this is public information,” Jane said, “so he clearly had just taken it from the website.”
The scammer continued to be persistent about the deposit. “He was demanding £1000 from each of us.” But they didn’t request any of the students’ relevant personal information, which alarmed Jane and her friend. “He said that in order to secure this, he just needed the deposit and could do the rest later.”
The scammer also said that there were many other groups waiting and that if they waited any longer, it would be given away. “We were being spammed with messages every two minutes,” Jane said, adding that the scammer even told them “this might be the only chance [they] have at finding a flat.”
Jane and her friend chose to wait until their third flatmate returned to ask her about the situation. Upon arrival, she sensed it was a scam. The students luckily avoided moving forward with the scam and losing out on money.
“It really shows you how weird the housing market is in St Andrews”, Jane said. “That I, a reasonably intelligent person, would go along with this for over an hour.”
The housing fraud challenge in St Andrews is compounded by how students negotiate deals on social media, often while overseas, and leases can be signed without even viewing properties – both of which make it easier for fraudsters to prey on desperate students.
Another challenge for students is inexperience. Many are not well-versed in how to deal with finding private accommodation. If not naturally sceptical and careful, they are easy prey.
Fox says students should try to find accommodation through the University before resorting to suspicious letters. “If you haven’t seen your apartment at home, and somebody on Facebook asked you for a grand, would you pay it? At home?”, she asks.
Here is a quick list of dos and don’ts when it comes to finding accommodation:
Don’t: send money to someone before signing any documents. If a landlord is asking you for a deposit upfront, it’s likely that you’re getting scammed.
Do: avoid any wire or online transfer platforms such as Western Union.
Don’t: trust all advertisements for students flat on Facebook.
Do: make sure to confirm the landlord’s details, such as their registration number, and if it’s through social media, their profile picture and the information they have up.
Do: check with a parent or adult who has more experience with legal documents and such before signing anything or sending over any money.
Students should also report all instances of fraud to the police, Fox adds, adding that the University is building new accommodation for next year.
Illustration: Sarah Knight