GARDAÍ ARE WARNING members of the public to be extra vigilant when looking for long-term or holiday rentals as accommodation fraud was up 30% last year.
Some 279 incidents of accommodation fraud were reported to gardaí in 2021, with over €516,000 stolen in rental scams. Gardaí have said 50% of victims are aged under 25 (58% female, 42% male) and criminals are particularly targeting students.
Speaking to The Journal, Detective Inspector Steven Meighan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) said fraudsters often target people who are under pressure because they need to find accommodation in a particular area, budget or timeframe.
“You see this with students at the start of the college term and they’re particularly targeting students coming from abroad who might not be able to carry out all the checks and see the place beforehand,” he said.
“That’s the Holy Grail for these criminals; a student from abroad who hasn’t even set foot in the country yet and who might be willing to pay nine months’ rent in advance.”
He said most victims of this type of fraud lost between €2,500 and €5,000.
“There is such pressure now to get accommodation, there’s such a shortage that people are willing to pay up front to secure accommodation,” he said.
In one recent example a criminal rented a property through a short-term rental service, while the owner went on holiday. The criminal moved in for a number of days, took photographs inside the home and arranged to sub-let the property to someone for a lengthy period.
When the victim turned up to move in, the legitimate owner had returned from holiday, was living in the property and had no knowledge of the rental arrangement.
“Everybody was shocked, the criminal took the money and vanished,” Meighan said.
He said gardaí are also urging those booking holidays this year to look out for red flags when looking at short-term accommodation.
Targets of short-term accommodation fraud are generally middle-aged. In the majority of these cases, the victim will have spotted an advertisement on social media and will have communicated with the fraudster only on social media or on WhatsApp.
Detective Inspector Meighan said if there is a high level or urgency from the property owner, it is possible people are dealing with a fraudster.
“If everything has to be done quickly, sending money before you even sign a lease, that’s a red flag,” he said.
Other red flags include:
• The rent seems too good to be true;
• The listing contains grammar or spelling mistakes and is on social media;
• All communication is only via WhatsApp or social media;
• The landlord says they are away and can’t meet you to show you the accommodation;
• Payment is requested in cash/PayPal/wire transfer/iTunes gift cards/ cryptocurrency;
• The account to pay into is in a different country.
Detective Inspector Meighan said there are a small number of Irish-based criminals who are “taking advantage of the perfect storm of the accommodation crisis”, but the vast majority of this fraud is perpetrated by organised criminals who are based all over Europe.
He said there are a large number of ongoing investigations and pending prosecutions within the GNECB.
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Meighan said he wants victims to know that gardaí treat these types of crimes seriously and he urged people to report it.
“It’s a serious criminal offence, it’s the Deception under Theft Act, which has a maximum penalty of five years in prison,” he said.
“I know people can be embarrassed or reluctant to report it, but they’ll be treated in confidence and with sympathy. By reporting it, you can help to shut down an avenue for the criminals – it may not shut them down entirely – but it could help ensure another person doesn’t get caught out.”
He said victims should immediately contact their bank if they believe they have been scammed as it is sometimes possible to block transactions or retrieve the money.
An Garda Síochána has issued a number of tips for people on how to recognise these kinds of scams:
• Only use recognised letting agencies; websites can be cloned too so check the URL to ensure it’s a real website
• Be wary of social media adverts or landlords who will only communicate via social media
• Make sure the property exists and ask questions about the property – disengage immediately if the responses are vague
• Only use trusted money transfer systems such as credit cards. Never transfer money using methods that can’t be reversed (e.g., cash, direct bank transfers, cryptocurrency, PayPal, wire (eg, Western Union), iTunes gift cards, etc.)
• Do a landlord check through the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) website
• Check the IBAN of the landlord’s account (eg, on https://www.iban.com/iban-checker) to make sure it’s not in a different country
• If booking a holiday rental, use a booking agent or hotel website directly or make sure any third-party websites are secure.
Have you been a victim of accommodation fraud? We want to hear from you. You can share your story anonymously by emailing email@example.com