Students lose thousands to online accommodation scams

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Several students have fallen prey to accommodation scams that have left them thousands of pounds out of pocket.

At least six students have been targeted by online accommodation scams, according to a Police Scotland spokesperson. Although most of the students – a mixture of postgraduates and undergraduates – realised it was a trick and did not lose any money, two students gave away significant amounts.

The person behind these scams posted in a University of St Andrews accommodation group on Facebook under the pseudonym Zhang Ping. According to the spokesperson, the fraudster was advertising reasonable accommodation for an extremely cheap rate. The address being falsely advertised was 3 Gillespie Terrace, a property made up of five separate flats that are all properly managed and occupied.

The letting documents looked authentic and must have been based on real leases used in St Andrews, but the police spokesperson said these can be obtained anywhere online. The scam’s targets were asked to send photocopies of their passports and personal details to the fraudster.

For some students in “panic mode”, the deal was too good to resist, the spokesperson said. “In this particular year with Fife Park going down, they have capitalised on that”, he explained. “[The scams] enticed people who have been desperate because of the accommodation and housing problems in St Andrews.”

The scams have mostly stopped since the police investigation began, though there was one similar case late last week.

The identity of the fraudster remains unclear. Despite some suggestions that the person behind the scams may have had a working knowledge of St Andrews, they appeared to be unaware of the division of properties at number 3 Gillespie Terrace. The police are keeping an open mind with regards to this. “They could be sat on the moon,” the spokesperson acknowledged.

Helena Voet, a postgraduate student, lost £2,200 to this scam. She described her initial impression of Zhang Ping: “First, his English was only okay. But still, who am I to judge – his name told me he probably wasn’t a native Englishman.

“Also his Facebook profile was small and unfinished. But I figured he had probably just joined Facebook in order to find someone to rent the room, but otherwise [he was] not active on Facebook.

“All this now makes me seem 100 per cent gullible, but when you’re looking for a room in a competitive environment such as St Andrews, you learn to look past a few odd features.

“Actually, it did cross my mind that this was all a bit weird, but then again, I had a signed contract so I thought I would be fine.”

Ms Voet only found out it was a scam when she noticed another Facebook post by the same person, with comments from other students underneath naming him as a fake.

“Probably the most stressful [thing] was the fact that with only three weeks to go, I suddenly was without accommodation.

“I spent many hours looking for something. Almost everything was already gone, obviously. Sometimes there was an advert still up on the internet, but the room itself was already taken. Also most people didn’t respond to my inquiries anymore, probably because the room was already taken. And everything else was really expensive.

“But because of my public plea for help, there were a lot of people responding in order to offer me help with the police matter and also a few to offer me accommodation. I would really like to thank everybody, this gave me a feeling of a really united group of students living in St Andrews, putting in effort to help out a fellow student. [Through] this I have now found a room in St Andrews.”

Ms Voet said that the postgraduate student representative was very supportive, giving useful advice, as were the people from her course of marine mammal science. The University was unable to help with providing accommodation, however.

“The accommodation service responded to my email with the greatest regrets, but everything was full and the waiting list too. But I can understand that they can’t work miracles.”

Benjamin Stuart, the director of Residential and Business Services, said that following these scams the University would advise everyone to be on their guard. He said that official and real accommodation offers had since been posted through the Facebook page of the postgraduate convenor, Tania Strützel.

The president of the Students’ Association, Pat Mathewson, said: “We at the Students’ Association are troubled by these attempts to take advantage of students at their most vulnerable.

“We have brought the issue to the attention of the University and local police, and would like to encourage students to take every measure in ensuring the legitimacy of property, and to be vigilant in engaging with only reputable landlords and letting agents.”

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