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Online rental fraud rising steeply

While recent official property crime survey England and Wales figures  CSEW - Office of National Statistics - suggest that long term property crime is on the decline.

The internet and other new technology have provided new methods for criminals to commit acquisitive crime. While work is currently underway to provide more comprehensive measures of fraud and cyber crime, existing crime statistics do not currently provide a full picture of this time of crime. However, the CSEW gives an indication of how this is changing the nature of property crime. For example, the year ending March 2015 CSEW showed that 4.6% of plastic card owners were victims of plastic card fraud in the previous year, a much higher rate of victimisation than traditional offences such as theft from the person (0.9%). In addition, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) recorded nearly 600,000 offences reported to them by victims in the year ending March 2015. This compares with 79,000 victims of theft from the person recorded by the police over the same period.

Reporter confronts 'London landlord' in fraud investigation

Image captionFraudsters offered a flat in this Kensington mansion block for just £700 per month

Rental fraud is rising sharply, the BBC has learned during an a recent investigation in which it confronted two online fraudsters for their crimes.

Scam artists offer cheap flats for rental, demanding instant deposits. But they do not actually own the homes - and would-be tenants' cash is lost.

Reports of rental fraud in England and Wales leapt from 2,216 in 2014 to 3,193 in 2015.

BBC researchers posed as tenants to expose tricks used by fake landlords.

One advert fraudsters attempted to place on the flat-sharing website EasyRoomMate offered a plush Kensington apartment for just £700 per month, far below the market rate.

easyroomate >Flatmates are more than that just flatmates.

Atta Nasim, of Milestone Estate Agents in north-west London, called the price "crazy", adding that you would not get a garage for that price in the area.

When contacted, a woman posing as the owner and calling herself 'Luise' tried to convince a BBC researcher to wire over £1,400 to a branch of The Coventry Building Society to secure the flat right away.

Land Registry documents show she is not the legal owner of a property there and when researchers visited the mansion block it was to find all the flats inhabited. The BBC also confirmed with the owners a 'Luise' was not associated with the property.

In an attempt to convince the BBC of the veracity of her offer, the fraudster emailed both a contract and a passport image in the name of a German lady.

Nikola Poncet
Image captionLiving in Luton: Nikola Poncet was defrauded over a Kensington property the advertiser did not even own

The BBC has since established the fraudster has stolen the identity of a real German woman.
A second fraudster, calling himself Gary, offered a handsome red-brick period flat in Willesden on the same website for well below the market rate, urging the BBC's researcher to wire £1,500 to a Halifax account.
In reality, the property was home to Italian students. The managing agents knew nothing of 'Gary'.
'Gary' claimed to be based in London - but a BBC analysis of his IP address showed he was in fact communicating from a computer in Lagos, Nigeria.
Confronted with his lies by telephone, 'Gary' replied: "I don't know about that. You think this is a fraud? There is no fraud my friend."
When accused of taking part in a crime, 'Luise' put the phone down. The BBC's technical analysis showed she was in the UK.
The BBC has made the Coventry Building Society and the Halifax aware of the fraudulently-used accounts.
A Halifax spokesman said: "We are currently investigating the matter you have raised with us and will take the necessary action we deem appropriate pending the outcome of this investigation."
Student Nikola Poncet, a victim of the crime, lives in a small bedsit in Luton. He was ripped off by a fraudster with a bogus advert offering a flat in Queen's Park, west London, and lost £600.
Mr Poncet said: "I was willing to take the flat without a viewing based on the location, just on the price of it.

Flat interior
Image captionThe fraudsters hoped to lure would-be tenants with pictures bearing no resemblance to the real interiors of properties offered

"[I felt] anger, disgust, I was really disappointed.
"I was thinking, 'Wow I've spent money I couldn't afford and what's happening to me right now? I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up'.'"
The figures showing a rise in rental fraud were from Action Fraud, which collates national fraud statistics for City of London Police.

She continued: "We work with property adverting websites to ensure that they are able to recognise fraudulent advertisers."
EasyRoomMate, one of the largest flat-sharing websites in the UK, filters adverts before they go live.
It blocks 5% of the 1,000 adverts placed on its UK site each week because they are suspected to be fraudulent. But a further 1.5% that slip through the net are taken down after publication.
Albin Serviant, CEO of EasyRoomMate, which assisted the BBC in identifying the two fraudsters, said of the criminals: "They are very experienced, they are very sophisticated and they are also adapting very fast.
"They are very creative so we need to make sure the team are experienced enough to cope with these kinds of issues."
The adverts the BBC investigated were not allowed to go live by EasyRoomMate. Websites including Gumtree, Air BnB and Spare Room have also been targeted by rental fraudsters.
But for Mr Poncet, warnings come too late. He added: "I've got to start all over again."

The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) is also warning people of the dangers of “Recovery Room” fraudsters targeting former victims of timeshare fraud.

Recovery Room fraud is a method where scammers contact victims of previous frauds (often by cold calling) and claim to be able to recover previously lost funds. In July 2014 the Financial Services Authority (FSA) estimated that 30% of people who had lost money through Investment fraud would also fall victim to a Recovery Room fraud. 

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