Warning over online property scam

By Tara Mills
BBC Newsline

Image caption, Laura Bleakley spotted the apartment on the internet

Take a walk around any student area in Belfast at the minute and 'to let' signs are in abundance.

After several weeks lying empty it's the time for undergraduates to be looking for somewhere to live next term.

But Trading Standards are warning it could pay to look locally when it comes to rental searches, as online scams originating abroad are advertising dream flats that don't actually exist.

Laura Bleakley from Portadown has been looking for a flat with her boyfriend for the last two months.

She went on a website and found a two-bedroom apartment in Belfast city centre that looked perfect.

It was fully furnished, with all bills included for a very reasonable £440 per month.

"This one was advertised at a much lower price than anything else. It was really nicely furnished, it looked very clean with cable tv and it just seemed out of this world," she said.

'Russian owner'

Laura emailed the owner and began to become suspicious. The owner said she was from Russia and had been left the apartment by her aunt.

She said someone else was interested and asked her to send her two months rent and a deposit by money transfer to secure the flat.

"This made us very suspicious because we were being asked to give the money upfront without even seeing the flat and she could just disappear, there could be no guarantee and she could just disappear off the face of the earth with our cash," Laura said.

And there were other reasons to be sceptical.

Because she was suspicious, Laura put the photographs from the apartment into the website Tineye - which helps find the origin of a photograph.

The apartment turned out to be in London and was on sale on a legitimate website.

Image caption, It turned out the apartment was legitimately on sale in London

She did some more research and realised this person had used the same ad and the same story to try to fool other people in cities across the UK including Swindon and Cardiff.

We reported the scam to the website and to Trading Standards.

Stephen Thompson from Trading Standards advised prospective tenants to use local agencies or websites where there's a much greater chance of comeback if something does go wrong.

"We would always advise people to be very, very careful when they're sending money to anybody," he said.

"It's not a good idea to send money by money transfer to somebody you don't know - we would advise against doing that full stop."

The website vivastreet.co.uk said it had removed the ad and advised all users to be vigilant and report any scams to them right away.

Laura said the experience has brought her flat hunting to an end: "It's really put me off, I think I'll stay living at home for a while longer."

The internet has changed how we buy and rent property.

Gone are the days of just looking at newspaper ads or going around estate agencies. Laura made her search for a property exclusively online.

The bottom line is if something seems to good to be true it probably is.