Anonymity or Untraceability is an essential element in fraudulent deposit scams. This fraud is as old as the hills and simply means taking a deposit or advance payment for goods or services that do not exist, are not available or are never supplied.
Fraud 'Flat landlords' can prey on flathunting strangers to the territory and it is not apparent to the victim that there is anything wrong with the transaction until they arrive at a fictitious address or occupied house. The fraud also applies to any payment demanded before goods or services are supplied.
The main advice that can be given is to be cautious and check out the supplier/seller to the utmost extent possible. Here are some simple tips:
Examine the email or message you have received. Does it exhibit any of the clues referred to in the 'spotting scam emails' section?
Are the only contact details an email address and/or 070 telephone number? Try to get a landline number and physical address for the landlord and contact them personally (requesting some of the details of the accommodation as below).
Get someone to check the property out if you can't visit personally. (If you are a student, your Student Union or Uni. administrators may be able to help. Sometimes the administrator may be able to tell how valid the offer is just from the location. )
Is the price asked unusual (cheapest in the section?) Compare prices carefully. If a landlord is asking £350 per month for a two-bed flat in Hampstead Heath or WC2, this is just WRONG. A quick comparison with other adverts in the same area will tell you if the price is realistic. Unfortunately overseas students are often taken in when just looking for cheap accommodation. Just because you NEED it to be cheap don't be drawn into automatically believing the claim. All Central London locations are expensive if they are not subsidised in some way by your College/University/School of Nursing/Hospital etc. That is because everyone would prefer to be close so that they don't spend too much money on travel and property is expensive near the centre of all cities.
In the case of a flat or roomshare, try to get as much address and local information as possible. Try to get everything about the address (Postcode, Directions from the nearest tube station (if in London) , Distance to and location of the nearest bus or tram stop, and the Tram or Bus numbers stopping there and where they go to, Actual Bus/Tube/Tram fare from the location to the centre of town or your college, List of local shops/restaurants, Nearest Post Office or Public Telephone Box etc.) If in London, ask which tube zone the property is in. A local contact at your college etc. should be able to check obvious frauds from this information since the fraudster may not have access to the information unless they are very local. In many cases the fraudsters are not even in the same country so these checks should help. A fraud 'landlord' in Germany is unlikely to know the local bus routes. Also remember this is all information which a genuine landlord should know about and which you as the potential tenant will need to know at some stage. Most genuine landlords will already have a package of this information ready-prepared for their tenants.
In the case of a classified sale, the same sort of questioning about goods on sale will often uncover the fact that the seller does not really have the goods they are purporting to sell if they are fraudulent.
Proper questioning (for perfectly valid information) will cause a fraudulent landlord/seller to invent a new excuse about why they cannot answer the quesions or even cause more timid fraudsters to give up. Some others might even decide that it is going to be too much work. Remember they want EASY money. They don't want to work for it!
Don't rely on email if you can help it. Can you talk to the seller/landlord directly (without an 070 number)? Does he give excuses for not being able to talk to you directly? If you can't talk directly take care. Why don't they have a landline or even a real UK mobile number?
Does the same person answer the phone every time? If the phone is answered by different sounding people or even different genders, for instance, why is it that any one of them can give the details needed? Could they be part of a gang or set of people in league? To be fair they could just be members of the same family with no evil intent.
Listen for background noise. Does it sound local (UK)? Sometimes you might detect foreign voices (but this is just a clue and not definitive.) Is the background noise appropriate for the location you expect the phone to be answered from? (In a recent case the forwarding 070 number was supposed to be an office in central London yet the background noise was of mixed farmyarm animals, dogs and hens! It could have been the city farm or the zoo but be cautious!
WHY ARE THEY ASKING FOR THE DEPOSIT UPFRONT? Reputable landlords are quite happy to take deposits when handing over keys.
Is the payment to 'hold' the flat or item for the buyer? If so suggest Escrow with a reputable company. (This is an organisation that will hold money designated for a particular person UNTIL certain conditions are met - goods judged suitable, keys handed over etc.) Reputable dealers or landlords should have no problems with a reputable Escrow agent. (BEWARE – there are FALSE escrow agents out there! Your money is not safe with them! Get advice and DO NOT use one suggested by the seller/landlord unless you have it checked-out and verified first. This is easily done online following the guidelines in the Escrow section.
Resist all attempts to get you to send money by Western Union or MoneyGram. It is not safe or traceable. If it is essential to send the money and this the only method you can use from your location, take every precaution that you can. Again your University/college administration or Students Union may be able to receive the payment for you, to be paid over only when they are satisfied about the deal.
Reputable sites have rules of conduct to PROTECT their users. If the website offers email contact through the site you should resist any attempts get you to to communicate directly. The website may have better ways than you to detect potential fraudsters and can warn you of suspicious adverts. Some advertisers may try to display their contact details in some coded form. You are strongly advised NOT to be tempted to contact them in that way. A good website will monitor who has responded to an advertisement and can warn them if the advert is later suspected to be a fraud.
If you are buying anything at long distance take extra precautions to assure yourself that everything is OK. The vast majority of these traders and landlords are perfectly trustworthy but you should always take sensible measures to check out the details before committing yourself. If you are asked for money upfront always ask yourself "why? " and take steps to check out the deal and the vendor in greater detail.