International students are being warned to be especially vigilant as new figures show an increase in the number of reports of rental fraud.
The National Union of Students says criminals are taking advantage of students coming from overseas with limited experience of the UK housing market.
National cybercrime analysts Action Fraud say in the year to September, more than 3,000 cases of rental fraud were reported to them, up by half on the previous year.
Police say a large number of cases involve international students.
Chiteisri Devi, who is 28 and from India, was recently conned by someone posting in a Facebook group for students looking for housing in London.
The student, who has been studying for an MA at University College London, ended up paying more than 2,000 for a flat which didn’t exist.
She said: “I told the scammer I would think about it, but she told me I had to be fast.
“I wasn’t really in my right mind because my granddad had recently died and I just really needed a place to get on with university work. So I tried to sort my accommodation out from India.”
She says she is speaking out to stop other students falling victim to a housing scam, as cases of rental fraud are often under-reported.
“The scam artist sent me a tenancy agreement and bank details so it seemed ‘legit’. But it wasn’t long before funny stuff started happening.
“For example, she got in touch to say she wouldn’t be there when I arrived in London, and that a lawyer would be there to give me the keys. That lawyer never showed up.
“When I finally realised it was a scam, I was really upset. The bank had been closed and my savings were gone.”
She says she learned a vital lesson.
“In India, I never would have signed up for a property without viewing it first. In India, you’re always cautious. But now I’ve realised wherever you are in the world, you don’t pay for a place if you haven’t seen it.
“If you’re an international student and you have to find somewhere else to stay so you can view the property first, then it’s worth doing that.”
Meanwhile, one couple who moved to the UK from India and did not want to be named told BBC Asian Network they were shown a property in London by someone who had pretended online to be the landlord. They lost 1,000 after it emerged the man they met didn’t own the property.
They said “it’s very easy” for people to “make fools” of people who have recently moved to the UK.
Det Ch Insp Andy Fife, from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, said: “It’s much harder to be sure of who you are dealing with when you are coming from overseas.
“With property prices being so high, a lot of people are renting and scammers are taking advantage of that.
“It’s difficult to catch some of these scammers because they use fake details including names and addresses and mobile phones that aren’t part of a contract. They remove all trace of themselves.”
NUS international students’ officer Mostafa Rajaai said: “Institutions have to play their role in protecting students who have no knowledge or experience of the UK housing market.”
He called for more availability of guarantor schemes for international students which involve universities agreeing to lend students money for rent if they are unable to afford it.
Mr Rajaai continued: “With the vast majority of private providers requiring a UK-based guarantor or six months’ rent up front, it is the responsibility of universities and colleges to act as guarantors for international students. By doing this, the risk of exploitation will be significantly reduced.”
Chiteisri Devi’s university UCL has this advice. Meanwhile, Facebook urges people to report content they believe is “questionable”.
Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-34608919