House-hunters have lost thousands of dollars after paying deposits for Auckland rental properties advertised by overseas scammers.
With the city in the midst of a rental housing shortage, the Nigerian scammers have copied legitimate advertisements for homes marketed by Barfoot & Thompson, pasted them on auction website Gumtree and asked for bonds and rent in return for the keys.
In one case, a prospective tenant is thought to have paid up to $2000 for a three-bedroom house in Oak St, Royal Oak, but when they visited the property, they were told by the existing tenant that the house had already been rented.
The house was advertised for only $395 a week.
"They knocked on the door and asked about it," said Trish Rowlatt of Barfoot's Royal Oak office. "This online business had taken the ad we had, then lowered the price from $550 a week. So we put a sign outside saying the house was not for rent."
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Another prospective tenant visited the same home.
In another case, would-be tenants visited a home in Mt Albert they had seen advertised on Gumtree.
An email from the scammers, seen by the Herald, welcomed them to their "charming home in lovely quiet street".
"Pastor Fred Jones" claimed he owned and had lived in the house but said he had "relocated to West Africa" with his wife, Karen Jones, who was purportedly a missionary dealing with Bible translation and literacy worldwide. "Pastor Jones" sought three weeks' rent as bond, totalling $1350, and $450 to cover the first week of rent.
"Presently we have packed out due to my transfer as a matter of my profession where I work as a volunteer with Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA)," the email said.
"Please note that you will only be able to drive by the house for now but can't have a look at the interior until I have sent the keys and documents of the house to you," he wrote. The ECFA is a real organisation, but based in Washington.
The scammer left a phone number, with a Nigerian area code, which the Herald called.
A "Pastor Williamson" answered and asked for money to be paid so he could send the keys for the house.
Kiri Barfoot, who runs Barfoot's rental division, is worried house-hunters will think they have secured a place to rent and lose money, so she is warning prospective tenants.
"Apparently a tenant has put some money into the scammer's bank account and never seen it again," she said. "This has happened to at least two of our branches in as many days.
"Put simply, the scammers copy our photo and rental property details on to another website, advertise it cheaper than we did - in [the Royal Oak] case, $150 a week cheaper - then get naive people paying them cash upfront in their bank account to rent it without even seeing inside it or meeting the scammers face to face."
Ms Barfoot complained to Gumtree and got an answer apologising and saying the ad had been removed.
But when the Herald called the scammers yesterday, the man who answered the phone was still trying to take deposits on an Auckland property. Gumtree did not respond to Herald queries.
Ms Barfoot said her firm had not been to the police but she understood a victim was laying a complaint.
Real Estate Institute chief executive Helen O'Sullivan had not heard of the Nigerian scam but said house-hunters should be wary of dealing with overseas-based property managers and check their credentials.
"You should make sure the money you're paying is going into a trust account, so ask the bank if it is a trust account and never, ever pay your money into an account that's not a New Zealand bank account," she said.
"If the owner lived overseas, I would expect them to have a New Zealand agent."
*Legitimate Barfoot & Thompson rental ads copied on auction website Gumtree.
*Houses in Royal Oak and Mt Albert advertised.
*Weekly rents advertised at low rates.
*One would-be tenant thought to have paid up to $2000 deposit.
*Tenants asked to send money in return for keys to house.