Thursday, 11 August 2011

419 Scams Connected With Renting A Room

Previously I have commented on my experiences of living away from home Monday to Friday in order to work:  This has put me into circumstances that I have characterised as fitting in with those portrayed in Arnold Bennett novels.  Earlier this year, I also commented on issues around living as a lodger:  These experiences are again relevant, as having finally found work in London, a city where I could neither afford to rent a flat, I have gone back to being a Monday to Friday lodger.  With the recession still raging and impacting on different parts of the country differently, weekly commuting is becoming a common practice in professional jobs.  This may be why parts of the M25 have been experiencing even worse jams than usual, especially on Fridays.

I commute over 300Km each week but during the working week able to walk to my job.  I am fortunate that I have ended up lodging with a nice couple in a quiet, clean and pleasant house with an excellent wireless internet connection; in an area where few people seem to use such facilities.  Two other men, 10-20 years younger than me, are also lodgers in the house, but our daily schedules seem to complement each other, so there are not queues for the bathroom.  The only real challenge is that the landlord wants his monthly rent in cash meaning repeated visits to the cashpoint machine once I receive my salary and making sure it is kept safely until I can hand it over to him in one large lump.

What this posting is about, are the stages before I was successful.  I had learnt a lot from looking for a room in order to work at my previous job.  Originally there I had spent time looking online and in newspapers, day after day, and telephoning for rooms at lunch or in the evening only to find the room had gone or to be summoned to an hour-long interview not to be rejected, simply not to be called back.  In London I know it has been even worse with the pressure for rooms meaning that for perverse reasons people letting rooms not only conduct interviews as stringent as applying for a job, but even have evening events to which the ‘candidates’ are invited in order to carry out activities worthy of ‘The Apprentice’ in order to ‘win’ the room.

The main reasons I had been rejected for renting a room were because I was a man and because I was 42.  I accept that there are many women home owners who do not want a strange man lodging in their house, though they often cannot say that explicitly in their advertisements.  Often the gender or single/couple status of those letting is not revealed either.  Men letting rooms usually have no problem with a male lodger, but unless there are gay (and only 10% of men are) many would prefer to have a female lodger too.

As for age, people seem to prefer someone ‘exciting’ even if, ironically, they just come home from work and slump in front of the television themselves.  In the exercises to select a lodger this is the factor that is often focused on in particular.  Given that middle aged is officially 36-59, by the time you are 42 you cannot even pretend to be ‘exciting’.  Ironically, of course, they do not really want a 24-hour party person as a lodger, they want someone who is not seen or heard, leaves nothing in the fridge and manages never to be in the bathroom when they want to use it.  However, that is not what they think they want, certainly at the processing stage.

Having learnt these lessons, I adopted an approach which I repeated this time on coming to London.  Instead of chasing after advertisements only to get rejection after rejection, I put out a ‘wanted’ advertisement (using Gumtree London), detailing my age, gender, the profession I work in (something else people get exercised about, by definition civil servants certainly are seen as insufficiently ‘exciting’), what child and/or animal combinations I could tolerate and how far from work I was willing to be (even so, I always get offers 20-40Km from where I will be working, pretty much defeating the purpose).  Anyway, this has saved me a lot of wasted phonecalls. 

This time, however, I encountered a problem for the first time, the one which forms the focus of this posting.  All of us are aware that 90% of the emails we receive are not only junk but are, in fact, trying either to trick us into revealing details in order to hack into accounts or to trick money directly from us.  Such scams are often categorised as ‘419 scams’ a reference to the number of the Nigerian law which covers such criminal activity.  Once Nigeria was a major centre for such scams, but now it has spread to many other countries and many originate from within the UK itself.  Such scams constantly evolving; Wikipedia even has a whole page devoted to them.  We have seen the move away from those based on traditional confidence tricks such as trying to persuade you to part with a certain sum of money in return for a share of a larger sum.  Many now purport to be from banks or other online services you may or may not use, in order to tackle some supposed fault.  The ever changing variety of scams has now reached looking for rooms to rent.

I posted my advertisement twice in the space of a fortnight and among the eight responses I received, three were scams.  This might not seem a great deal, but when the supply of rooms is so scarce, this is three wasted opportunities.  The scams I received fell into two categories.  The first type may have even been computer generated.  The two messages came from a German Yahoo email account.  The first one suggested a room quite far from where I was working and I realised the sender had taken the area I stated I was interested in as the name of a street elsewhere in London and sent me a room available in that street.  The house holding the room was number 32.  I rejected that room straight off, saying it was too far away.

I only realised that this message was a scam when I altered my advertisement for inclusion the second week.  I got another email from a German Yahoo account, but using a different name and with an address close to where I work; it was only later that I noticed it was in house numbered 32.  What struck me, however, was that the photographs of the room were identical to those I had been sent before and then I saw the number was the same.  Looking back, I should have been suspicious immediately as the facilities on offer are far better than the standard for rooms right across London and the monthly rent was slightly below the norm.  In addition, in the emails they asked very quickly for details about me, whereas, as I have explained above, I had included a lot of personal detail in my original advertisement.  Given that both emails followed the same pattern, generating a response with a real address based on the area requested in my advertisement (though mixing up the area and street name in the first case), suggests to me that there is mechanical scamming going on.

The second scam was certainly with a human who I ended up in correspondence with.  Again, the facilities were slightly better and the rent slightly less than the norm for the area.  In addition, he would not give the name of the street the room was in though he sent photos of the interior.  Another noticeable characteristic was that after the initial email the level of English grammar and spelling fell away quickly.  Though, having dealt with officials from Newham Council over many years, I do know that this is not a great sign, because most communications I received from the council were more poorly written than the average scam email, as I often told them.  The Newham council worker Deanna Banks, has an unfortunate name for avoiding being suspected as a scammer, but the fact that she seems unable to use capital letters does not help either.

What aroused my slow to arouse suspicions was the story this scammer began spinning.  He said how he had people coming to the room and loving it so that he took it off the market only to find ultimately they could not pay the rent.  I offered to show him my current bank statement but he said he had been tricked in that way before.  I even offered to pay him a deposit of £200 in cash on the day I saw the room, if I liked it.  When he refused this and went on in detail about how I had to send money to my girlfriend using Western Union and then show him the receipt, I knew it was a scam.  Internet pages say that any transaction which involves Western Union should be avoided; they seem to only function on business done for scams.  Other money transfer companies are available and seem similarly exploited by scammers.

It was only some weeks after I had sent abuse to these scammers that I read in ‘The Guardian’ that scams around renting rooms have become so common and I recognised one of the ones listed as being the second one tried on me.  By definition someone seeking to rent just a room as a lodger is not rich, but these scammers are going to try to steal from you all the same.  The difficulties that people actually renting rooms put in place just drives you all the quicker into the arms of the scammers.  I was angered by how much time was wasted and how my hopes were raised and dashed.  I do also wonder about the poor people whose addresses get used by the scammers.  I guess at least some of them have had distraught people turning up at their door assuming that they are somehow connected with the scam, when in fact they have been just as exploited as the potential lodgers themselves.

No comments: