Student rental scams on increase

The University of Cape Town.

Con artists posting fake ads for student digs are swindling their victims out of thousands of rands.

Rondebosch police have seen a spike in fraud cases because students lured by online ads for accommodation are paying EFT deposits only to discover later that the advertiser has vanished… along with their money.

Rondebosch police spokesman Warrant Officer Lyndon Sisam, said lone wolves or bogus letting agencies posted the ads on Gumtree.

“These agencies appear to be legitimate and will send the student a full lease agreement and, in a few isolated instances, they will even arrange for a contact to show the flat to the student. Some agencies have fake websites to make them appear to be professional.”

In some cases, the fraudsters had “tried their luck” and even asked for the first month’s rent to be paid after the deposit was made.

It is believed the average deposit asked is around R9 000.

After the account was closed it became “almost impossible to trace the suspect”, said Warrant Officer Sisam.

“If you do realise that you have fallen prey to a scam like this, contact your bank immediately and ask for the money to be reversed if possible.

“If the bank finds that the fraudulent account has received several deposits linked to similar complaints – they may be able to freeze the account.

“But if these two measures are not possible – the money will be lost.”

UCT law student Lilly-Anne Simons, 23, was scammed out of R11 000, when she had to find a place to stay at the last minute after her original plans fell through.

She spotted an online ad for a one-bedroom flat in Mowbray and messaged the advertiser who arranged a viewing.

“I viewed the apartment, not thinking anything was strange. We exchanged details, and I was told that there were a few students who already showed interest, and I’d have to pay a deposit of R4 000 immediately, which I did,” she said.

That evening, she received another message from the advertiser, confirming payment and asking for the first month’s rent of R7 000.

Ms Simons paid and asked when she could move in, but she heard nothing further.

R11000, that number was then disconnected.”

When she went back to the flat, she discovered it belonged to someone else.

Rondebosch police were unable to trace the culprit because the account had been quickly cleared and closed.

“ I am devastated to have parted ways with such a large sum of money because I am still a student, but the important thing is to learn and move on,” Ms Simons said.

UCT has received almost 12 000 applications for residence this year, well above its 6 800 bed capacity on campus.

However, UCT spokeswoman Patricia Lucas said the university also had an off-campus residence service that offered information and guidance to students and warned them about scams.

“The university maintains a database of landlords seeking students to lease their properties. It provides students with an opportunity to review choices that are suited to their need and affordability level.

“Any contract entered into is between the user and the advertiser, accordingly UCT is not part of such a contract,” Ms Lucas said.

The police have alerted UCT to the spike in accommodation-related fraud cases.

Rondebosch police have urged students to be cautious when making EFT payments, and foreign students unfamiliar with local ATMs should be vigilant when drawing money as syndicates operated in the area.

Thieves had been known to call students back to an ATM telling them their transactions had not been completed and that they could not use the machine until it had been.

“They will pretend to assist you and take your bank card and pretend to put it into the ATM and view your PIN.

“The student will think the ATM swallowed the bank card and stand at the ATM confused.

“Within minutes, they will empty your account,” Warrant Officer Sisam said.

In such cases, students should call the fraud number at the ATM immediately to report the incident and block their cards.

Through sleight-of-hand, your card and PIN would be in the possession of the “friendliest, most helpful, designer-clothed criminal in Cape Town”, and the bank, warned Warrant Officer Sisam, would refuse to cover the loss because you had compromised your PIN by typing it in, in front of a stranger.

Warrant Officer Sisam had this advice for students lured by the promise of offers that looked to good to be true:

“At university, they will teach you to question everything you are told and to consider the source of the information you are given and how to do thorough research. These skills will be most helpful in saving you money as you try to secure accommodation and other property this year.”