After months of searching for a house and hundreds of rejections, Nadine Hernandez was ecstatic when she found a house for her family to rent just before Christmas.
The Sydney mum-of-five spent days communicating with a potential landlord – and was even invited to drive past the home to have a look – before the gut-wrenching realisation she had become the victim of a sophisticated Facebook scam.
"There’s a housing shortage but also the prices have gone through the roof," Ms Hernandez told Yahoo News Australia.
She said a friend had found a house in Macarthur, south-west of Sydney, advertised for rent on Facebook marketplace on behalf of someone else — something which she admits was the first 'red flag'.
Ms Hernandez contacted the 'woman' — who said her name was Amelia — at the email given to her, where they replied, pretending to be a 50-year-old woman.
"She [said] she was in Queensland working for the next 18 months and wanted to rent out her house," Ms Hernandez explained.
"They wanted someone who would look after the house as their own," she continued. "I sent her a cover letter about my family and I said how hard it has been with five kids trying to find a rental."
'Amelia' then sent through tenancy application forms and sent through their IDs. It was during the application process that she started seeing some alarming signs.
'Burst into tears' with happiness
However, the mum-of-five proceeded with the application, receiving the news she was successful in securing the property.
"I literally burst out crying with happiness," she said. "I couldn’t believe we actually had gotten a house after over 100 rejections."
Not long after the email containing the good news, 'Amelia' sent through bond papers, saying she'd lodge the bond papers herself.
"I filled out the paperwork and they asked to be paid via Osko fast payment bank transfer," she said. "She asked me to pay her final manager 'Tara Emily'."
48 hours later, she emailed the real estate agent to see if the bond had cleared, with no response.
"She asked for the two-week advance and they would send the keys the same day they received it, so I sent it through. However she said I had to send it to a different account," she explained, saying it was another red flag.
Noticed her house being advertised online
The woman then told her to 'drive by' and check out the property, where she noticed a Ray White real estate sign outside the front of the property, advertising that it was for lease.
"When I asked her about it she said she’s no longer going through the real estate because they put the rent up without telling her," she said.
After going onto the Ray White website, Ms Hernandez noticed the house was open for an inspection that weekend and all of the images were the same as the ones shared with her on Facebook.
Hoping it was a miscommunication, she rang Ray White to ask them to cancel the inspection as she'd paid the bond and to tell them she'd been liaising directly with the landlord Amelia Brown.
"[The receptionist] was baffled," she recalled. "She put me on hold and spoke to the senior property manager who came back and said 'I’m sorry but the landlord does not match the one we have on file'."
She then told Ms Hernandez they'd been made aware of scams through private rentals.
"My stomach sunk and then I thought of all the red flags I ignored because I was so desperate for a house," she said sadly.
When she confronted 'Amelia' she told her it was under her husband's name and was offended she had questioned her legitimacy
"She would call me on her lunch break at 1pm," she said. "I never got a call and I knew that was it. No more emails for from her. "
Ms Hernandez went to the bank to cancel the transfer, but it had already gone through so they told her to go to the police who took down all her details to look into the incident.
"Financially with five kids, $2000 is a lot for us to lose and the bank said there’s no guarantee we’ll get it back," she said.
However, when the devastated mum posted her experience on a local Facebook page she was shocked to find she wasn't the only one who had fallen victim to the scam.
"Eight others were talking to the same person and two of those people had paid the bond," she said. "In a sense I'm happy it happened to me and instead of being embarrassed, I could let other people know what was happening in our community so they didn’t get scammed. "
Experts suggest that prospective renters should always go through a real estate agent to secure a property.
“Scammers often rely on email communications to avoid identification, do an independent search for a phone number and speak to the property manager over the phone or arrange a meeting in person,” Australia Competition and Consumer Commission ACCC Deputy Commissioner Delia Rickard told Scamwatch.
Ms Rickard suggested before making any payments make sure you are dealing with the licensed agent.
"If a scammer has your details they may impersonate a real estate agent and attempt to ‘follow-up’ requesting money after an inspection," she said.
“Many people are also experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic and the financial impact of falling victim to a scam can be devastating."
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