Harold Road in Dublin’s Stoneybatter is a pretty street on the northside of Dublin where residents hang flower baskets that burst into life throughout the spring, summer and autumn. They look out for each other on Harold Road and on a normal day it hums with activity as delivery vans move up and down, with trusted neighbours happy to take in parcels for those who are out for the day. The vulnerable and isolated residents of the road are routinely checked on by others. It is, in short, like many streets in Ireland and a most unlikely place for an international criminal enterprise to centre its activities.
But in recent months a house on the Dublin 7 road has been used as bait by criminals seeking to exploit Ireland’s accommodation crisis, with students at the nearby TU Dublin campus in Grangegorman conned out of thousands of euro as a result.
One of those students is Christina Korcakova. She is from Czech Republic and has just started her second year studying architecture at TU Dublin. She plans to stay in Ireland for the next six years or so, until her studies are completed. She arrived back in Dublin in plenty of time for the autumn semester. “I decided to move to Dublin on August 2nd; my student accommodation was reserved from September 1st,” she says.
So she went in search of “a different place to stay for the month of August. The situation was quite urgent as it was already the middle of July”.
She didn’t know it at the time but the sense of urgency she felt made her immediately vulnerable.
Korcakova says she explored all the options open to her, including accommodation websites such as myhome.ie and daft.ie as well as Facebook student groups, sources which are routinely recommended by universities across the country. Several days passed and the search wasn’t going well but then a breakthrough came in the form of an unsolicited email from a woman calling herself Agnese.
According to Korcakova the email looked legitimate and serious so she “did not mind not knowing where Agnese got my email address and I assumed I had contacted her through one of the numerous websites I had been on”. In making that assumption she missed the first and biggest red flag.
“We exchanged a few emails about the conditions under which she offered a shared room to rent in Stoneybatter. She sent me pictures of the room as well as a kitchen, asked regular questions about me not having pets for instance, and we agreed on me staying for a month.”
She says she now knows the pictures of the interior of the house that was supposed to be her new — albeit temporary — home in Stoneybatter look absolutely nothing like the houses in the area but that is all with hindsight.
A second red flag was flying over the nature of the communication — all electronic — and then a third flag followed almost immediately.
Korcakova was told she had to send the deposit and one month’s rent by bank transfer to secure the room and she was told she needed to act fast. Not wanting to lose the room after days of fruitless searching she did exactly what she was told. “After having received the signed page of the contract, I sent the money to the bank account which was mentioned in the agreement.”
She transferred just over €1,000 to Agnese. Days passed and Korcakova heard nothing. Then Agnese was on to her again to say the money had not yet arrived. “She even asked me to call my bank to cancel the transaction. Naturally I refused to do that as I wanted to have my place reserved. Luckily, she confirmed having received the money after approximately a week.”
“Obviously, I wish I had cancelled the transaction,” she now says ruefully.
The day before she was due to fly to Ireland from Czech Republic she sent Agnese an email outlining the details of her flight “so she would know when exactly to expect me. The reply said that she was looking forward to meeting me. Everything seemed to be fine after her stressed and a bit accusing approach at the beginning”.
Then the flight details changed so Korcakova mailed her would-be landlord again with correct information. There was no reply.
“I arrived in Dublin the following day still without any reply which was not honestly unusual as it took her sometimes a day or two to respond.”
It was at this point the reality of the situation became clear. She travelled from the airport to Stoneybatter but when she arrived in Dublin 7 she noticed that the Eircode listed in her contract was wrong. “It was a non-existent address that I was given and I realised I had been the a victim of a scam,” she says.
In an understandable panic, she reached out to a passerby — one of the people who lives on Harold Road and who is accustomed to helping neighbours. “Together we rang the bell of a neighbour of the place I was supposed to be renting. Luckily, he was at home and was incredibly kind, helpful, and supportive. I have no idea what I would have done without him. We reported the case to the police on that evening and he very kindly let me stay at his place.”
In the weeks that have passed she says “there have been five or six people so far, who arrived at the address, victims of the same scam. I was able to get in touch with one of them and compare our experiences. Surprisingly, the details were the same, from her nickname, Agnese, to the number of the bank account.”
It is not actually that surprising. While criminals can be clever they can lack imagination and if a backstory is working they tend to stick with it until it stops working. While Korcakova was dealing with Agnese, the beneficiary of the account was a man with the surname Embalo who, apparently, had a UK-based bank account and Korcakova had been told that Mr Embalo was a sailor who spent much of his time at sea.
Scams involving rental properties are not new and it is not uncommon for criminals to use the same bogus property, the same names and backstories and the same pictures of properties pulled randomly from the web in multiple attempts to defraud people.
Sometimes the scams are far more complex than that.
In one such instance reported in this paper earlier this year, a family was scammed out of €24,000 when they paid six months’ rent upfront for a property which was rented out without its owner’s consent.
The owner had decided to let the house on a short-term basis while on holiday and — seeing an opportunity — criminals rented it for a weekend and then put it up for rent on social media. The family, who urgently needed accommodation, paid the six months’ rent upfront. Fast forward a few days and the victims tried to move into their new home only to find the real owner there and oblivious to what had unfolded while they were away.
That was a particularly audacious, heartbreaking and costly scam but more often than not the criminals will seek to take advantage of students and use the housing crisis and a scarcity of properties to convince people to agree to leases online before actually viewing properties. Money is either transferred via an electronic transfer network such as Western Union or deposited in so-called mule accounts before being transferred to accounts overseas.
Given the cross-border nature of the activity and the anonymity of the criminals, it is very difficult for law enforcement, either in this country or elsewhere to apprehend those behind the crime.
Gardaí and multiple housing bodies have repeatedly warned people never to hand over money without actually seeing a property and to always be cautious of landlords who claim to be outside the country and cannot show you the property but still request a deposit.
In recent weeks gardaí have been urging people to exercise extreme caution when it comes to searching for places to live in order to avoid being conned like Christina Korcakova. There has been an increase of 30 per cent in accommodation fraud in 2022 compared with 2019 with the peak time for the crime falling between August and October.
Half of all victims are under the age of 25, most are women and the median amount lost is €1,300. Would-be renters have lost a total of almost €300,000 this year, according to official figures. The actual loses are likely to be higher as there will be victims who do not report the crime to the authorities.
The advice from gardaí is to only use recognised letting agencies or deal with people who are bona fide and trusted and to remember that websites can easily be cloned or dressed up to look legitimate. People should take particular care when it comes to properties listed on social media advertisements or if a would-be letting agent or landlord will only communicate via messenger or WhatsApp.
Renters should also watch out for “unsolicited contacts” or where the contact appears to be based in other jurisdictions, especially if there is a sense of urgency to the communication.
If a landlord can’t meet to show the property or offers a property instantly and then asks for a payment, very loud warning bells should sound.
Never hand over any money without viewing a property and making sure the keys you have been given work and only ever pay with a credit card — such transactions can be cancelled with relative ease after the fact — and never transfer money directly, pay cash or pay into cryptocurrency wallets.
Caller ID spoofing: Over the past year or so Ireland’s mobile phone networks have been flooded with calls purportedly coming from Irish mobile or landline numbers carrying dire warnings about compromised PPS numbers and imminent arrests. The messages vary slightly and change regularly. Sometimes the voices on the other end of the line claim to be from the Department of Social Protection or the Office of the Attorney General. Sometimes they claim to be gardaí or from Revenue. Sometimes they link the recipients to money laundering, drug trafficking or social welfare bonuses or tax rebates coming down the tracks.
The explanation for the upsurge is simple. It is easy to do and hard to stop. The organisers fool telephone networks into displaying a caller ID which is entirely different from the number actually placing the call. The call may be coming from eastern Europe or the UK, but it will display on your phone with an 087 or an 083 prefix or as originating in the Office of the Attorney General as happened earlier this year. Using robocall software, criminals can target thousands of numbers chosen at random simultaneously. Just a tiny percentage need to be fooled for the scam to work.
The fake invoice scam: With so many people changing bank accounts as a result of the departure of Ulster Bank and KBC from the Irish market, this scam is likely to be more prevalent in the weeks ahead. It sees the criminals send emails to businesses and individuals purporting to be a legitimate supplier. These emails contain a request for the firm to change the bank account details on record for the supplier to a new bank account. The account is controlled by the criminals. Nothing might happen for weeks or even months and in many instances the business does not know it is a victim of this scam until the legitimate supplier sends a reminder invoice seeking payment. According to the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI) in the first half of the year, businesses were conned out of an average of €14,000, and up to €50,000.
The smishing scam: There can’t be many people who haven’t received a text from their bank asking them to follow a link or submit some personal details on the basis that suspicious activity has been noted on a particular account. Based on a survey of its members, the BPFI suggests that the number of scam text messages almost doubled between January and June from the same period last year, with the victims of text message scams conned out of an average of €1,700 in the first half of the year.
The bogus delivery scam: You get a text message from a delivery company to alert you that a delivery has been attempted but you weren’t home. Alternatively a message might land warning that customs charges have been attached to a delivery which is being held until you pay up. The text message will come with a link to a site that is dressed up to look legitimate but if financial details are entered, the criminals can quickly gain access to a person’s finances and drain accounts.
Cryptocurrency scams: Promises of large returns on crypto investments are becoming more common and are a rich seam for criminals. Globally cryptocrime was worth an estimated €12 billion last year, more than double the 2020 figure.
The missed call scam: One of the most irritating scams out there. You miss a call from an unknown number and when you return it, you get through to an answering service. You stay on the line for a few minutes to find out what is going on and pay exorbitant rates for doing so.