Airbnb told Yahoo Finance it was working with Victoria Police after allegations a man who took out a short-term rental in Melbourne posed as a landlord in a “deplorable” plot to fool people into handing over cash.
Sophie found the “perfect” one-bedroom apartment on a Facebook page and had organised to take over the lease of a seemingly “normal guy” who said he was going to work in the mines. But after a smooth inspection of the apartment on August 27, signing what appeared to be a legitimate lease agreement and handing over bond and the first month’s rent, she had an “oh shit” moment.
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The man never showed when Sophie’s partner went to collect the keys on September 6 and his phone number was disconnected. She Googled the property and found out the one-bedder wasn’t listed.
“My partner called the real estate company and [they] said, ‘We’ve only just put it on the market, it used to be an Airbnb and we’ve had lots of people calling about this property’,” Sophie told 7News.
The young couple weren’t the only one’s fooled. Another man said he inspected the apartment on the same day, paid up and would’ve been “basically homeless” if he wasn’t able to stay in his old rental.
“I was obviously glad I wasn’t [out] on the street, but it’s $3,000 at the end of the day,” Stephen told 7News.
He had a back and forth with the alleged scammer who kept telling him via email he’d been “caught up” and was trying to reschedule the key handover. That was the last Stephen heard of him.
Victoria Police said it was investigating multiple reports of the rental scam, and decried those responsible for preying on people struggling to find a home.
Vulnerable renters targeted
Melbourne has seen a sharp drop in available rentals over the past year, with the vacancy rate hitting 1.09 per cent. On top of this, rent prices are on the rise too.
The average weekly rent for a house in Melbourne is up 18 per cent, year on year, at $707, while apartment rents saw a similar 13 per cent jump, to $519 per week, according to SQM Research.
“To have someone take advantage of others, especially during a rental crisis, is deplorable,” Port Phillip Crime Investigation Unit Detective Senior Constable Demi Pascoe said.
“Prospective renters should only be dealing with licenced real estate agents, and if something sounds too good to be true, it generally is.”
Police have released CCTV footage of a man who frequents the South Melbourne and St Kilda areas that they believe could help with their investigation.
He is described as Caucasian in appearance, aged in his late 20s to early 30s, around 180cm tall, of a medium build with short, dark-brown hair and stubble, and speaks with a distinctive English accent.
Scammers took more than $3.1 billion from Australians last year, illustrating how common scams are.
Airbnb’s terms and conditions prohibit illegal activity and have a specific online portal for police to use so they can investigate properly.
“We are assisting Victoria Police in its investigations and we’ve also suspended a guest account. We enforce strict policies and community standards, and those who violate them can face action including removal from our platform,” an Airbnb spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.
Pascoe urged anyone with information or who may have fallen victim to a similar scam to come forward.
“There is no need to be embarrassed – and the information you provide may be what police need to identify the man, make an arrest and lay charges,” Pascoe said.
How do I protect myself from scammers?
Aussies lost a record $3.1 billion to scammers last year, an 80 per cent increase on the previous year.
Scamwatch warn to beware of the following scenarios:
It’s an amazing opportunity to make or save money
Someone you haven’t met needs your help - and money
The message contains links or attachments
You feel pressured to act quickly
They ask you to pay in an unusual or specific way
They ask you to set up new accounts or Pay ID
What should I do if I think I’ve been scammed?
Contact your bank and report the scam. Ask them to stop transactions and stop sending any money.
Watch out for follow up scams, particularly ones promising they can get your money back. Scamwatch warned one in three victims of a scam are scammed more than once.
You can also contact IDCARE to “reduce the harm they experience from the compromise and misuse of their identity information by providing effective response and mitigation”.