Online rental scam

I recently moved to Hong Kong and was the mark of a scammer who tried to cheat me of rental deposit. I lost no money, just a bit of time that I could have used to view other properties and get settled in earlier.

The scam is simple. The scammer shows the victim a rental unit that looks very attractive and good for the price. The victim is interested. The scammer explains that he/she wants someone of the right character to stay in the house. The victim has to write about himself/herself and gets more committed to getting the unit on the way. Once the “landlady” decides to go with this tenant, he asks for money to be wire-transferred because for some reason he is not on location and will fly over to meet the tenant and pass him the keys or mail the keys over. If the victim pays the money, the scam is successful. He finds out that the house is occupied.

I have often wondered how stupid a person has to be to lose money in this manner. I got my answer. The money is not brought up at the start. A number of messages are initially exchanged between scammer and mark making the mark more and more committed to the place. By the time the mark realises that the “landlady” is not in town and will not be able to open the door for him to view the place, he has already spent some effort to prove himself “worthy” of the unit and is committed to it. In the email exchanges, the scammer identifies minor problems with the house making the house seem all the more real. And the scammer sends a scan of his photo ID – that of a real person. It is all very convincing.

Being an information security professional helped me to not lose money in this case. I knew that a scan of the ID did not prove that the sender was the owner of that ID. My telephone company, bank and various other organisations probably have scans of my ID. I asked for a video chat over Whatsapp. This is harder to fake and I received no effective reply.

Edit (added 31 Jan 2017): The scam works for three reasons. It works because:
1) humans are inherently trustful,
2) the scammers are clever enough to make us commit our efforts to make us want it to be real &
3) we rationalise our suspicions with reasonable-sounding explanations and allow ourselves to be victimised.

How to not be scammed that easily:

  1. Be on the alert if it looks too good to be true.
  2. If you get suspicious, ask the internet and people who may have done the same thing before (e.g. people who looked for units to rent in Hong Kong).
  3. Do not send over money by bank transfer to anyone whom you have not seen. Online selling sites such as eBay use Paypal which provides the buyer with some protection.
  4. Note that a scan of an ID card (or even the ID card itself) is useless unless you can verify the picture against a live (not recorded!) video or against the actual person. ID cards can be faked or stolen. Lots of people can have scans.
  5. The scammer may get indignant (my scammer did) if asked for proof, but this is a ploy to bring down your defences. It is the obligation of the person at the other end to verify that he/she is who he/she claims to be. This is essential to establishing the trust that you need to conduct your transaction.
  6. In the event that you have seen the person online or in person, you still need to authenticate their identity with an ID card or have some address to lock them down to if you need to dispute something with them in court. Anyone can chat with you using a fake name. You might also need to consider whether the police has jurisdiction over them to redress any claims that you have against them. The Hong Kong cops probably can do little to someone in London.
  7. Edit (31 Jan 2017): You can reverse-lookup photos on Google Images (images.google.com) to see if they appear in any other websites (that depict rooms in other countries, for instance).

This is the gist of my experience. I have put things down in greater detail below for those who are interested:

 

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Note: I am going to name names. The names will be of real, likely innocent people. I put in the names in so that others who are in a similar situation to me may get a clue and stay away from the scammer. Also, as far as I know, the people who own the names and the people who may have falsely used them have not been convicted of crimes in any court of law.

I started my house-hunt a few days prior to arriving in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one of the most (if not the most) expensive housing markets in the world. Many contacts and friends advised me to budget HKD 15,000 per month (~USD 1,930 at time of writing) for a room in the city. After browsing through a bunch of rental websites I was confident of finding something under HKD 10,000. I set my primary requirements as: must have an attached bathroom, enough space for a small table in the bedroom and close to the city centre. There were many lacklustre options but one stood out: a post on easyroommate.com.hk that displayed gleaming clean rooms with a massive bedroom that housed two beds and a fireplace for just HKD 6,500/month. The description stated that it was built with luxury in mind and that the owner wanted someone with whom she would get along nicely more than anything else. It looked too good to be true. I contacted the owner, Bianca, who responded the next day.

Here is her actual introduction: This is just to let you know few things about myself and the apartment.My name is Hais Bianca, I am 26 years of age,easy going, tidy and non smoker female.I am glad that you are interested in renting my apartment and I will be looking forward to having a wonderful stay with you should you succeed in reserving it for yourself.

I love meeting new people and also a like having a time-out with relatives and friends whenever I am less busy.My father and mother used to live in the apartment before my father’s demise which has led to my mother’s relocation.

Since I am currently on an internship attached to my late father’s company in the United Kingdom,I will be resuming for my masters in Hong Kong soonest once the internship program has been concluded but I will be available at anytime for you to move into the apartment on the specified date as long as I am sure of your interest.

The most important thing is that,I am looking for someone to share daily life and common value with. so the ideal person i will like to share my apartment with must be a neat, trust worthy person and the person must be capable of paying the rent on a consistent basis as long as he/she continues to stay in the apartment.

There are Three bedrooms in the apartment, One is for me, the room in the picture is about to be reserved for 1 person(which has it’s toilet and bath en-suite and the last one which is reserved for guests is also for rent as well,since my parents are no longer occupying the apartment(that is why it is no longer available for guest because they used to be my parent’s guest)may be the other person can manage this room(but it will have it’s toilet and bath shared).So the only thing we will have to share together in the apartment is the kitchen and the living room.

The from portion of the email said ‘bianca hais’ (uncapitalised first letters). I obviously had to do a good job to win this one. I put on my best interview face and wrote up a nice piece about how awesome a flatmate I was. At the very end I asked:

If this is an interview… what languages do you speak? 🙂

Bianca said that she was OK to be my roommate. She spoke German and English and was also learning Mandarin. She provided me with all the photos of the unit that I asked for and welcomed me to check out the locality myself. She had wasted a lot of time and money the last time, so she wanted me to reserve it before she came over. “That’s why it is so cheap – because people do not want to accept an apartment that they can’t see for real,” I told myself. I told B that I would confirm once I checked out the area. We sent each other a few more emails. I sent her one saying:

Und Ich spreche ein bißchen Deutsch. (translation: And I speak a little German.)  You could help me practise. 🙂

She did not reply to that one, but sent over the information that she required before she could come up with the lease document. I sent her over a scanned copy of my passport and details such as full name, age, occupation, moving-in date, how many months I wanted to stay, etc. I arrived in Hong Kong and saw the locality, a vibrant place with lots going on. There was a guard at the gate and I did not go in. I emailed B that I was OK to go ahead. She sent me the rental agreement and a scanned copy of her Hong Kong ID (HKID) card. It was a very nice looking tenancy agreement including the below generous clause:

(e) The tenant is privileged to get a refund of his/her money if he/she is not satisfied with the apartment after viewing it or should there be any contradiction from what was being displayed in the picture compared to what is seen on viewing.

At this point, the fact that she had mentioned that I had to reserve the room before she would come over had finally filtered into my consciousness. I had to pay this woman before I saw her? “But she has sent me a scan of her HKID, so I know that she is who she claims to be,” That’s when the security professional took over. The HKID scan only proved that she had a scan of Bianca Hais’ HKID; it did not prove that the person who sent it was indeed Bianca; it did not even prove that she had Bianca’s HKID card. I had not yet authenticated Bianca Hais.

I looked for the advertisement on easyroommate to see if I could find any more details. The ad had been removed. “She must have removed the ad when I expressed interest in it. There must be lots of people who want it at that price.” I looked through my emails. Why was the room that cheap? Bianca’s email mentioned no lift to the room. Could that be a reason? I shot her an email asking about it and about what happened that caused her to lose money the last time. I looked her up on social media. There was one LinkedIn profile that fitted. She looked slightly different from the HKID picture, but there was evidence of living in Germany, Hong Kong and China. That would explain the languages that she spoke. I could not send her a message, but I was able to send a connection invite with a short message about me being contacted by a Bianca Hais in Hong Kong, asking her to reply. Separately I asked her over email to connect with me over LinkedIn.

She had said nothing for two days and I wanted to be done with my househunt. I realised that asking to connect over LinkedIn was unnecessary: we could just do a video chat over Whatsapp and I could see her face. I sent a message suggesting that. Then I checked the building again and confirmed that there was indeed a lift. There was a lift, so I was not being given a cheap apartment on that account. There was no reply the next day, so I sent her the signed tenancy agreement. I could authenticate her later, before I sent the money, but I had to secure the room soon. When I scanned in the signed sheets, an error on my part had caused it to attempt to scan an extra page. The tenancy agreement that I sent had an extra blank page at the end, five pages instead of four. Also, it scanned the pages in sideways instead of straight.

Bianca finally replied, a bit annoyed that I had made it so confusing with all my requests. I apologised, but insisted that we have the Whatsapp video chat. I had sent her my phone numbers multiple times, but she had not yet used them. Her preferred mode of communication was email. Now I started to get suspicious. She sent me back the signed agreement on her part. This is where it got really funny. It still had the same number of pages that I scanned in – five pages. I would have expected one page less if she had printed it out, signed and scanned it. Most interesting, she had put her signature vertically. More likely, I realised, she had pasted in a digital copy of her signature over the existing document.

Last page of the rental agreement (signatures masked). Note the odd alignment.

I had a bad feeling in my gut all along about this place. Little pieces were falling together that suggested things were not as they appeared to be. I searched for “Hong Kong rental scams” and came across this site: https://xingledout.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/beware-the-rental-scams-in-hong-kong/

The writer had experienced something quite similar to what I was going through with Bianca. This was not good. Now I had to start looking at my backup options. I really wanted it to be real, but how do I get out of it? And what if B was indeed real?

The next day solved the problem for me. I had looked up other rooms in easyroommate. There was a fantastic looking studio right at Central going for just HKD 10,000. I had contacted the owner when my suspicions about B started growing. I got this message from her:

Thank you for taking the time to look at my property.

My name is Luzia and I am a civil engineer, originally from UK. I used to work in Hong Kong, but the problem is that I had to move with my job bak to London, UK, where I am now. During my stay in Hong Kong I bought this apartment but I don’t want to sell it, so that’s why I decided to rent it.

I am looking for a responsible person that can take a very good care of my apartment. I am not after the money for the rent but want it to be clean all the time and the possible tenant will see the apartment as his or her own and I hope that you can send me some personal information about yourself. The apartment is fully furnished with all necessary amenities (exactly like in the pictures). It has dishwasher, washing machine and clothes dryer. There is a storage unit where you can deposit my furniture (if you don’t like it and you want to use your furniture) and AC. Pets allowed. Cooking allowed. This is not a shared rental with the owner.

The monthly rent for the entire apartment is HKD$ 10,000 and also includes monthly utilities bill (electricity, water, heat, cable, gas, internet connection+wifi), so there is nothing else to be paid on top of that. I am looking for someone to rent anywhere from 1 month to 5 years or more. Also the apartment is available immediately!

Sadly I do not have anyone there, so the property is being managed by Airbnb (no agency fees) and they will handle the whole rental process. If you want to know more about the rental process please get back to me and I will send you the step by step procedure.

There was a pattern here. The name in her email said Leslie Andree, not Luzia. There were too many similarities with Bianca Hais. The London connection, the verbosity and the fact that all these people were willing to part with so much personal information about themselves, the fact that the place looked just too good to be true (HKD 10,000 for the kind of room Leslie/Luzia advertised was a steal) and that they would not be able to open the door for me themselves if I wanted to view the place. A normal person would use an agent.

I finally stopped wanting it to be real and went to the police. A nice gentleman named Toby listened to my story with interest, viewed the pictures and the emails and informed me that no crime had been committed. I had not lost any money to the scammers and while the places did look too good to be true (he was amazed at the fireplace in B’s master bedroom), I could not prove that they were indeed fake. I asked him if he could at least not check with the real Bianca whose HKID I had a scan of. She was probably a victim of identity theft. He said that he did not have the justification to look it up in his system. It was slightly disappointing but consistent with my experience with the police elsewhere in the world. At least he was very polite. Toby advised me to inform the website administrators. “They would know about the people who posted the rooms.” I laughed. Easyroommate.com.hk did not even secure their login page. They only require an email when registering as a client. It was then that I realised that easyroommate had done something. They had removed Bianca Hais’ post.

I started evaluating the damage to me. I lost a lot of time that I could have used to productively house-hunt. I had some suspicions and I did not want to put all my eggs in one basket, so I had viewed a few units. Worse was the fact that the scammer now had a copy of my passport and a nice little piece that I wrote myself about my character. They could try to use that to spoof my identity for the same purposes.

I sent B an email saying that her post for the rental unit was very similar to many rental scams taking place in Hong Kong and that I was not proceeding with it. “Good bye.” I then told an agent for another room I’d viewed that I was willing to take a room of his that I’d viewed. He asked me for one crucial detail that B had not asked for: my employment contract, to ensure that I could pay for the room.

I was thinking that this business was settled when I got some Whatsapp messages from a London number. It had Bianca’s picture, as seen in her LinkedIn profile. “What is your problem? I have not started living with you and you have been making everything complicated. Do you think everyone will think the way you think? Now it is a crime for me to rent out my apartment because I needed a flatmate. If you have trust issues you can as well buy your own house. Stop disrespecting people. My apartment is not a scam and I owe you no explanation.

I was in shock for a minute and almost sent a message of apology. Then I got over it. The picture was publicly available. In the extremely unlikely event that I had been communicating with the real Bianca, she would have to be quite stupid to not simply use an agent to hand over the keys. Who wants to fly all the way from London to Hong Kong just to hand someone their keys? I doubted that a real Bianca would want to live with me at this point or would give me her phone number after I had called her a scammer. I asked B for a video chat. There has been no more contact since.

I wrote to easyroommate. They got back to me stating that both posts (Bianca’s and Leslie’s) had already been taken down by their moderators. That had not helped the people whom the scammers had already contacted, had it? I advised them to make it a policy to inform all people who had been in touch with the scammers (or who had contacted the scammers) so that the users who had been reached before the posts were taken down would also benefit. Easyroommate said they would consider my suggestions. Hopefully they will implement them.

Edit (31 Jan 2017): I eventually learned that the pictures were from apartments in France by reverse-looking them in Google Images.