So once again I’ve been extending a hand into the mixed bag that is Gumtree housing advertisements. You never know whether you’re going to get a reply from some nice person looking to quietly circumvent the real estate industry, or from somebody who wants to quietly lift the cash from your pockets without providing anything in return.
The most common scam on Gumtree involves trying to get a potential mark to send an amount of money through Western Union or Moneygram. The nominal reason is to provide proof that you, the tenant, will be able to pay the rent. The (scammy) landlord pretends to be out of the country or at some distance to where the flat is located, and they can’t possibly bother to arrange a viewing of the flat until after they know you’re a serious tenant and you’re not going to be a time-waster like all the others. They don’t ask you to send this money to them, mind, but to yourself or a close friend or relative–they only need the receipt as proof that you have the cash. What could go wrong?
They intercept the cash before you can pick it up, of course, leaving you flatless and depositless. (And by the by–in Britain we have a system by which a legitimate potential landlord can request a letter from your bank confirming whether or not you’re able to cover the cost of rent for a certain period. It’s called, imaginatively, a bank reference letter. There’s no need for anyone to prove their financial worth to a landlord in any other fashion.)
The scammers have gotten cleverer. I first encountered this type of scam about a year ago when I was looking for a new place to live in Exeter. What they now do, unlike before, is immediately remove their ad from Gumtree as soon as they’ve sent you an email, thus making it harder to track them. They also send an initial email from one address asking you to contact a different email address if interested–“email my wife, she has the details.”
From the first email I ever received from a scammer, they have always used a pidgin English that I suspect is fabricated–the ads themselves are usually quite eloquent, after all. I think they do this partly to give the impression that they are in fact far from the place that the scamming is being done. Maybe they genuinely are, but I have my suspicions.
I always report every fraudulent email to Gumtree, but it’s like fighting the tide, since free email accounts are so easy to set up. It’s also generally good practice to Google every email address you think is suspicious because sometimes they do slip up and use the same ones, which occasionally show up reported on message boards. For that reason, here’s a list of all the email addresses that have been related to fraudulent Gumtree ads I’ve looked at in the past few days: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org [this one came up in a search for the exact same scam email text from an ad on Craigslist Vancouver!], email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. May potential marks find this blog entry and be put off from doing anything with their cash.
Despite what I’m about to say below, I don’t like being thought gullible. I also get annoyed on behalf of the people who must really be taken in by the scammers, because the theives wouldn’t keep doing this if it weren’t working. I used to do nothing more than reporting this to the authorities, which is probably the most sensible action. However, some mischevious part of me recently started forwarding the fraudulent emails I received from one address to another. No commentary, no “Ha, gotcha!”, just forwarding the text of one to another. At first I thought I was doing something cheeky, risking some sort of retaliation via computer virus. But I realized that these people aren’t evil geniuses, they’re probably not emotionally invested in this scheme. Unlike us, the potential scamees, they don’t care. They’re just in business. They’ll see my response and just chuck it on the negative pile with all the others. And who knows how they’ll feel about me writing this blog about them–maybe they’ll consider it a lark. Maybe, again, they won’t care at all. Maybe they’ll spam my blog (it’s happened before!) My emails and this blog post will probably have absolutely no effect whatsoever in the grand scheme of Gumtree scamming, but wasn’t Don Quixote happiest when tilting at windmills?
Now the gullible bit: I said above that you never know whether an ad will be a scam or not, but actually, there are always clues. Usually, the description accompanied by photographs of an absolutely stunning flat in a very desirable area for an unbelievably low price is the first indication that something might be remiss. Unfortunately, even though I know that every single one of them is going to turn out to be scam-bait, I have a compulsion to enquire about them. There is a tiny, glimmering little part of my brain that, despite logic, believes that somewhere out there, somebody really is renting a studio situated on the first floor of a stunning period conversion in a prestigious South Kensington address and boasting a beautifully presented living space, with balcony, for £80/wk.
Yes, go ahead, laugh. I know it’s beyond reason. There is no such thing. I’ve thought quite a lot about why I continue to respond to these ads. Finally I realized, with a mixture of shame and defiant pride, that I’m just like young Sarah, the protagonist of a Victorian children’s novel made into a sappy movie titled A Little Princess. Sarah went through a number of privations at a girls’ school as a result of losing her fortune and becoming an orphan. (That’s not the bit that’s like me.) She then, to keep her sense of dignity and creativity, begins to tell fantastical stories. Skipping the details, a kindly rich neighbor overhears the stories and begins anonymously leaving gifts for her based on the things she describes, which she believes are the magic of her fancies made real. Basically, she believes that if you wish for something hard enough it will come true–and lucky little Sarah, it does!
As I say, I know the ads are not only fictional but acutally bait to try and steer me astray. But still, a tiny little part of me retains hope that if I wish hard enough, something astounding will happen.