Finding a short-term stay in London is far from easy, and the time pressure I am under makes me relax my guard. I nearly fell for a scam today, but "good old paranoia" saved me 1200 pounds and rescued me from something known as 'the gumtree scam'.
I found 3 short term rentals, of which I visited 2 today. The first one was very cheap, only 110 pounds per week in semi-central London. It was run by a Chinese guy who was very friendly and nice. No scamming whatsoever. The rooms he rented out were usually rented by Chinese students, but they've all gone home for summer so I got a holiday discount rate. Unfortunately though the room was, even for my relaxed standards of living, sub-optimal. The second place I visited was excellent in every way, except the location was inconvenient and it was only available until June 30th. I need to stay here at least until the beginning of July.
My final option was the one I was favoring right from the beginning. A place in a good area of London at a convenient location. The rent was not unreasonably cheap; if anything, it was slightly expensive for a shared apartment. Communication by e-mail went very smoothly. I received photos of the place rather quickly, and even a fabricated back-story on the owner of the place that seemed completely believable. I have never even come close to falling for a scam story, but this one really did seem completely legit. The scammer didn't even mention anything about payment until the last possible moment. It was when I asked to view the apartment that the cat came out of the bag.
Apparently, our scammer friend does not live in London, and cannot come to London because she is very busy. So I am not able to see the apartment until the moment I sign the contract. So far, so good. I will see the apartment before signing, so I can still back out. But here's the trick: before our scammer agrees to see me, he wants proof that I can pay for the apartment. And he/she doesn't accept any other proof except a Western Union receipt. The scammer was very careful to explain clearly that I should not send the money to him, rather I should sent it to a friend. The WU receipt is proof that I have enough money to pay. He assured me that only the recipient can pick up the money, so it's perfectly safe. Later, I can cancel the WU transfer to my friend, and make a new one to the scammer.
Here's the trick: anyone can pick up your money with just the receipt from Western Union! No identification needed. If I had sent them proof of the money transfer to my friend, they could just print the receipt and cash in my money from any WU office. Well played, evil scammer person. Here and here are two stories that confirm the scam. Unimpressively, they're from Nigeria. How can a company like Western Union continue to exist if that's how they handle their money transfers? Every sane person would never use WU because it's notorious for scams.
I came pretty close to being scammed this time, but I do believe that in the end I would've found out. Even if I had gone to an actual Western Union office, I would have asked for information about how to cash in the money from the receipt. I'm pretty sure I would've backed out at that point. In any case, the words 'Western Union' are permanently linked to the word 'scam' in my head. Even more so than before, that is. What surprised me the most is how scammers have evolved. They're actually doing proper back-stories and coming up with reasonable arguments to extort money from you. Something to be careful about in the future.
All scammers should be shot through the head. The world would be a better place for it.