By Nigel Morris
The conmen advertise incredible properties at knockdown rents in exclusive areas and then trick deposits and rental advances from would-be tenants through money transfer agencies.
Sisters Alexandra, 19, and Zaire Sheppard, 18, from Holloway wanted to leave home and rent their own flat.
They spotted an advert on the Gumtree website for a two-bedroom apartment in Belgrove Street close to King’s Cross. The cost was £650 per month plus a deposit of £700.
They emailed the owner ‘Lin Dong’ who told Alexandra that he had trouble with tenants before and he wanted proof that they could afford the rent and deposit.
"I was put off my guard because I was not asked to send the money directly to Lin Dong – I sent the money to my sister"Alexandra, scam victim
So he asked Alexandra to send a payment of £1350 through Western Union, not to him, but to a trusted friend or relative.
All ‘Lin Dong’ asked for was a scanned copy of the transfer payment receipt so that he could verify that she had the available funds.
Alexandra sent the payment to her sister Zaire, through a Western Union franchise in Golders Green and then emailed the receipt to ‘Lin Dong’.
The transfer document clearly stated that the ‘Receiver’ was Zaire Sheppard.
That was the last Alexandra heard from ‘Lin Dong’… because sometime after sending the money, a fraudster, with fake ID, pretending to be Zaire Sheppard walked into a Western Union office somewhere in the world with the scanned receipt and took the money.
Alexandra said: “I was put off my guard because I was not asked to send the money directly to Lin Dong – I sent the money to my sister.”
Closer scrutiny of the photos shows vistas of countryside; trees and even a swimming pool. Such views are a far cry from the gritty; inner London concrete reality of Belgrove Street.
Whose flat the photos actually depict is anyone’s guess…
BBC London discovered that the ‘Lin Dong’s’ email address originated in Lagos, Nigeria.
We then found a telephone number for ‘Lin Dong’ the dialling code was also Lagos.
One of the photos used to lure victims
BBC London reporter Marc Ashdown decided to telephone him on behalf of Alexandra. The West African man who answered the phone said he was Lin Dong and later said that he wasn’t.
During the call various people decided to talk to our reporter and all seemed to treat the matter as a big joke.
We then decided to find our own internet flat fraudster – it was very easy. This time the luxurious two-bedroom flat on offer was in Wigmore Street, in the Marylebone Village.
The rent was a bargain at £650 a month.
The fake owners, ‘Katie’ and ‘Benson’, were in France on holiday and needed a quick deal. They asked me to forward £1350 through Western Union and send them a scan of the receipt.
Instead we checked the origin of the emails – all were from Lagos, Nigeria.
We then called a mobile number that ‘Katie’ gave me. The ring tone gave the tell-tale foreign pitch usual to long distance calls.
The West African man who answered did not know which fraudulent character he was supposed to be or what scam was in play.
At one point we had to remind him that his fake name was ‘Benson.’
‘Benson’ then said ‘Katie’ was in bed with a headache but that the flat was still available.
We asked him to give me an exact address in Wigmore Street but he decided not to hear me. He then told me he was in Paris.
When we asked him if he meant Lagos he put the phone down.
Although Alexandra answered an ad on GUMTREE the fraudsters exploit many other websites and forums.
Gumtree.com spokesperson Chee Ho Wan thanked BBC London for highlighting this case and said that “we are taking this issue very seriously.”
He added: “We strongly discourage users from transferring money in advance of seeing a flat, or anything else they may see advertised on the site.
“We also operate a community reporting system whereby users can easily alert us to suspicious activity so that we can take action, and furthermore we are working with Western Union to try to put a stop to this sort of fraudulent activity.”
Western Union are now investigating the scam but say they cannot make refunds to consumers who have been defrauded.
A spokeswoman said: “We are very sad to hear that Mrs Sheppard has been the victim of a criminal scam. Western Union takes all such reports very seriously and investigates all reported consumers scams or frauds on a case by case basis."
She added: “It is important to note that consumer fraud is a global problem that affects financial organisations of every size. Western Union has a number of initiatives in place to help prevent consumer fraud.
"These range from fraud warnings on our web site and telephone systems to posters in our Agent locations and consumer awareness campaigns in conjunction with government agencies and consumer groups.”
Email addresses connected to this fraud:
As yet there are no official figures for how widespread this fraud is - so we're trying to build a picture of the situation in the capital. Do you know anyone who's been affected? Has this happened to you?
If so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org - and please include your name and telephone number if you're happy for us to contact you.
Reporter: Marc Ashdown
Investigations Producer: Nigel Morris
Camera: Ian Paice/Dave Perella