Beware: fake ad fraud

Attempted fraud on property portals has been on the rise recently. Scammers try to trap trusting house-hunters with appealing ads for dream homes. These tips will help stop criminals in their tracks.

Jürg Zulliger

 

Sounds like a dream home, doesn’t it? A tranquil location in the heart of Zurich’s Old Town. Close to the river Limmat and outstanding shopping facilities. This recently renovated ‘Old Town gem’ could be yours to rent for CHF 1,100 per month. Eighty-five square metres with no restrictions and an ‘unlimited tenancy’. That’s what the ad says, anyway.

Trick no. 1: down payment and deposit fraud

The landlady replies immediately. She’s in Spain right now – her daughter is about to start studying in Barcelona. An uncle will handle the viewing and all the formalities. This landlady has just one condition: she will send a link with her payment details. The prospective tenant must pay the CHF 3,600 deposit in advance.

Yet this advert – and the lovely apartment itself – exist only in the criminals’ imagination. This is a down payment scam: fraudsters hope to part trusting consumers from their cash with fake ads. Cruellest of all: in many cities where opportunities like this are rare, house-hunters are taken in by these scammers time and time again. Unfortunately, the more desperate your search for a new home, the more likely you are to take a risk with advance payments. The police and authorities now know that this kind of deposit and down payment fraud occurs with all kinds of adverts: not just rental properties and homes to buy, but often holiday rentals, short-term apartments and rooms in flatshares, too.

The rip-off merchants are getting bolder and more professional. Sometimes house-hunters are redirected to fake websites: the whole outfit looks deceptively genuine – but in the end, it’s the same trick. The hope of a ‘bargain’ leads people to throw caution to the wind. They pay money in advance and even transfer larger amounts as deposits. But they will never see their money again.

Trick no. 2: online phishing

The second trick involves convincing unsuspecting consumers to give away their personal details and passwords. The scammers lure them in with great prospective properties. They contact their victims via text or email. These take people to what is known as a ‘phishing’ site, which are usually designed to look like the websites of credible property platforms and agents.

Criminals try to use their ill-gotten passwords and email addresses to log into online banking or other web services. After all, sometimes a name, an email address and a password are all it takes to get in.

Now twice as cruel

These kinds of scams are particularly sneaky in the current circumstances: the fact that many people are house-hunting from home due to coronavirus plays into fraudsters’ hands. As people are initially avoiding personal encounters, this makes scammers’ lives pretty easy. And unashamedly, they ask for things in advance – usually cash. In return, they promise to hand over keys or show people around in person.

The same applies in this situation: under no circumstances should you trust anyone and transfer money ‘blind’. At the end of the day, all the scammers want to do is cash in and make off with your money.

Checklist: ‘House-hunting with a little common sense…’

  • Too good to be true: Be particularly cautious if the apartment seems unbelievably cheap or the ad is otherwise implausible (‘Four/five-room apartment in Zurich city for CHF 1,000 per month…’) This applies to properties advertised for rent or to buy.
  • Don’t give away your details: Never send your passwords, bank details or copies of your ID out to the big blue yonder or type your details into unverified websites.
  • Check an offer is genuine: You can sometimes tell a fake ad by the generic ‘catalogue photos’ and random descriptions and text. Clumsily phrased adverts may also indicate that fraudsters are operating from abroad and using poor translation services.
  • Suspicious behaviour: Practically speaking, hardly any landlords would want to avoid giving a viewing or drawing up a contract. Be careful if you are asked to make a payment in exchange for keys. Sometimes scammers even bring up homegate.ch in connection with the key handover (homegate.ch is a platform and does not hold viewings or handle keys).
  • Ensure correct procedure is followed: First, you should be able to find out who the landlord is (look up their business address and who manages the property for them, view the rental contract). Every house-hunter is entitled to view a property free of charge with no obligation.
  • Use your common sense: Every landlord or property manager should want to get to know their future tenants. Personal contact and viewings are always possible – that’s standard in the industry.
  • Classic excuse – ‘landlord abroad’: You should be suspicious if everything is done anonymously via telephone and email. Ask pertinent questions if the logo, name, company name, email addresses, etc. seem unusual or unprofessional.
  • Common sense is key: If an offer seems too good to be true, it usually is. If you have a bad gut feeling, then you should be suspicious.

 

Homegate checks all the ads it receives before they go live. This helps us stop scammers in their tracks. However, it’s a good idea to be aware of the issue and use your common sense. Property platforms themselves are unable to launch legal or criminal proceedings against scammers. So if you have suspicions or have fallen victim to fraud yourself, contact the police.