Police to investigate letting scam cases

2014-01-14 00:00

SEVERAL families paid thousands in rentals for the same holiday flat in Umhlanga over the festive season, only to find they had all rented the same apartment — and that it was someone’s home.

But the “broker” named on the Gumtree adverts for the property has claimed to The Witness that he was himself a victim of an identity scam — and that “harassment” from victims of the holiday flat fraud had landed him in hospital.

Now, police are investigating a series of letting frauds, in which at least one bogus agent offered affordable holiday accommodation that didn’t exist, and accepted thousands in deposits and rentals.

An unknown number of holidaymakers not only found themselves scammed, but also stranded.

Yesterday, Shelley Barnsley from Pietermaritzburg said she booked an apartment at Ridgeton Towers in Umhlanga, to enjoy a beach holiday with her husband and four children.

Barnsley said she found the property on the Gumtree site, and paid R3 000 upfront in September into an account supplied by the rental broker listed on the advert.

But when they arrived to collect the key at the address last week, they were informed by the supervisor that the apartment was owned by a family — and was not for rent. “The occupant indicated that a number of people had been arriving for the same accommodation. It was then I realised that we were crooked.”

Barnsley said police in Umhlanga told her they were investigating 60 similar letting scam cases. However, police would not confirm the number to The Witness.

Barnsley — an administrator at the University of KwaZulu-Natal — said the family had been forced to abandon their summer holiday plans, as no accommodation for four children could be found at short notice. “We only made arrangements for four nights in Durban, but we could not enjoy ourselves after we discovered the [scam],” she said.

The owner of the apartment, “Sanjay”, said he and his family had been on vacation in Cape Town during December — and was astonished to learn that a string of “tenants” had arrived to stay at his home.

Barnsley said the advert had listed the agent’s name as “Nishen Maharaj” — but that she had been struggling to reach him ahead of the vacation.

“The problem started when the broker disappeared. I had paid in September but when I contacted him in December he was nowhere to be found. [Later] when I managed to get hold of Maharaj, it turned out that he was not aware of anything.”

When The Witness reached Maharaj via the number listed, he said he was the owner of a Durban sweet shop and had placed no advert on Gumtree, and had “nothing to do” with apartment letting.

Maharaj said that, last year, he had opened a case with police as a victim of identity theft — and believed his details had been used by fraudsters not only for the letting apartment scam, but in a string of other frauds as well.

He said the stress of fielding demands from furious fraud victims had landed him in hospital.

“I’ve suffered dearly on this since June,” said Maharaj.

“I have received calls at my shop claiming that I owe them money for some goods. I’m recovering from a heart attack after what happened in December with people calling me demanding their money.”

Police spokesperson Captain Thulani Zwane said police were pursuing leads in a number of cases related to the scam. “We have cases that are being investigated,” he said.

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