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"Aren't you going to find a rental in Tauranga?" asked Isha, "You're not living with us in Auckland this year, are you?"
"I was searching online Ma", said Hosh, "It's much easier and faster than actually physically visiting houses. I can look up pictures and details of any house, make enquiries, book and even pay a deposit online without moving an inch."
"Be careful", said Rosh, "Online advertisements can be scams."
"Not for rentals," Hosh was skeptical, "Not on reputable websites. I am only looking at adverts from reputable real estate agencies, and that too for accommodation within my own country."
"Scammers are getting sophisticated," Rosh laughed, "These kind of scams are common globally, and New Zealand is no exception. Just last week, there was yet another story in the national paper about a rental scam in Auckland. Didn't you see it?"
"No!" said Hosh, his curiosity now aroused, "What was it about?"
"Bond and rent were asked for in return for the keys of the house. A prospective tenant even paid up $2,000 into a scammer's bank account for an advertised three-bedroom house in Oak Street, Royal Oak."
"When the new tenants arrived at the property, they found it already tenanted and occupied. Later, another prospective tenant came door knocking and had a similarly shocking experience. The existing tenants have now put up a sign outside their gates, saying that this house is not available for rent."
"Barfoot & Thompson had originally advertised it for $550 a week, but the scammers used their ad photos and info and advertised it for only $395 a week. This isn't the only such incident either. In another case, would-be tenants arrived at a Mt Albert home advertised on Gumtree for $450 per week."
"This advertisement by a fictitious Pastor Fred Jones, claimed that he owned and had lived in the house but had since relocated to West Africa with his wife Karen, and was currently working as a volunteer with Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA), a legitimate US based organization."
"He sought one week advance rent and three weeks' rent as bond, totaling $1,800 to be deposited in advance in his overseas bank account via online banking or internet wire transfer. All verifiable stuff, and seemingly legit and harmless."
"Please note, his email informed potential tenants, that you will only be able to drive by the house for now but won't be able to have a look inside until I have sent the house keys to you. There was even a phone number included, with a Nigerian area code, to call."
"And did the enquirers call it?"
"Don't know," said Rosh, "but the Herald called it. A "Pastor Williamson" answered it and asked for money so he could send the keys and documents for the house."
"Didn't anyone do anything about it?" asked Isha.
"Well", said Rosh, "I haven't followed this case, but obviously awareness of such scams is always created when these incidents get published widely."
"Barfoot complained to Gumtree and got an apology saying the ad had since been removed. But when Herald called the scammers later, the man who answered the phone was still trying to take deposits on an Auckland property."
"Gumtree have since announced that they are closing down in New Zealand and not taking any more ads, which is sad. Owners who previously privately advertised genuine rentals for free there won't be able to do so anymore. House-hunters too, especially from overseas, will have one less information source now."
"The victim reportedly, was going to lay a complaint. Police should be able to find these scammers through their phone, email or bank account details, but since the money went abroad, would they be willing to put in the time and resources required to pursue overseas fraudsters for small amounts?"
"Anyway, there are no guarantees that the victims would ever get their money back even if the scammers do get nabbed. Best practice therefore, is for buyer to beware. I'd be cautious if the rent is much lower than what I would expect. If it sounds too good to be true - it probably is."
"Be wary of paying money into off-shore bank accounts anyway," Isha interrupted, "Even if the owner lives overseas, most would have an estate agent managing their properties locally. I'd go see them first."
"Yea," Rosh agreed, "It is best to be careful when dealing with property managers or owners based outside the country. Check their credentials, or if buying a house, the titles of the land or property."
"I'd go see the house too first, and check out the neighbourhood by driving by, and making enquiries. Online is too easy. But what's easy for you, is also easy for the scammers."
"The world online is a dangerous place", said Hosh.
"It can be", Rosh smiled, "if you are caught unawares. But it is also a great convenience as you have already observed."
"Accidents can happen anywhere, and even in real life locks never really stopped thieves. But locks still serve a purpose. Similarly, awareness is your best shield against online fraud."