Singapore

Singapore housewife loses $51k to fake Airbnb site

She falls victim to fraudulent site for 'seven-month stay in Paris'

Ms April Cho wanted a new shot at life after 14 years of being a housewife and raising two children, and she registered for a seven-month pastry-making course in Paris.

On accommodation website Airbnb, the 41-year-old found what looked to be the perfect apartment next to the culinary school.

She and her husband, who did not want to be named, paid 32,154 euros (S$51,600) for the seven-month stay.

But it turned out to be a scam.

Ms Cho had signed up for a 22,800-euro course at Le Cordon Bleu that started on Nov 20. She found the Airbnb listing last month. Almost immediately after she first messaged the Airbnb "host", she was told to send an e-mail so that she could sign a rental agreement, among other things.

"I know that France is quite bureaucratic, so I thought it was natural," said the Singaporean permanent resident, who is from South Korea.

Soon, the "host" e-mailed her a link where she could make payment.

The website the link opened was a fake one that looked almost exactly like the Airbnb site, complete with a "live-chat service", said Ms Cho.

The Straits Times understands that Ms Cho's husband sent the money through DBS Bank to an account called "Airbnb Euro Trans" in Poland.

Ms Cho said the fake site showed she had successfully made a booking.

She suspected something was wrong only after the original Airbnb site did not show her trip. After repeated messages to the "host" on Airbnb, she realised she had been scammed. She had to book last-minute accommodation at a hotel and search for a new apartment.

POLICE REPORT

Ms Cho and her husband made a police report and contacted their bank, but have not been able to retrieve any money.

The Singapore Police Force confirmed a report was lodged.

Both the fraudulent listing and the user have been removed from Airbnb, whose spokesman told The Straits Times: "Fake or misrepresented listings have no place in our community. Our team is constantly working hard to strengthen our defences and stay ahead of fraudsters.

"We recently introduced new security tools to help tackle fake listings and educate our community about staying safe online."

Airbnb displays messages that warn its users not to go off the platform and the site has several features against scammers. But Ms Cho and her husband said they did not see any of the warnings.

They are not the first to be scammed like this.

Airbnb users in the United States and Britain have been similarly fooled by fraudsters who communicated over e-mail and provided links to sites that looked just like the original.

The executive director of the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), Mr Loy York Jiun, said: "We strongly encourage Airbnb to take more prominent measures to remind consumers to communicate with hosts and transact only through the Airbnb platform in order to safeguard their payments."

But he added: "Consumers also have the responsibility to remain vigilant when engaging in online transactions. They should consider using payment methods with prepayment protection."

Ms Cho has found a new apartment around 10 minutes' walk from school, though she could secure it for only four months, and is paying 3,255 euros monthly. This is on top of an agent fee of 1,500 euros - what she had wanted to avoid by using Airbnb.

How to avoid being scammed

Worried about falling victim to impersonation scams?

Here's what the police say you should do:

  • Ignore unsolicited calls, especially those from unknown parties. Scammers may use caller ID spoofing technology to mask the actual overseas phone number, and show a local number. If you receive a suspicious call from a local number, hang up, wait five minutes, then call the number back to check the validity of the request.
  • Ignore instructions to remit or transfer money. No government agency will ask you to make payments through a telephone call, especially to a third party's bank account.
  • Do not provide your personal information such as name, identification card number, passport details, bank account number or credit card details to the callers. Such valuable information may be used for criminal activities.
  • Call a trusted friend or talk to a relative before you act. You may be overwhelmed by emotion and err in your judgment.

If you have information related to such crimes or if you are in doubt, call 1800-255-0000, or dial 999 for urgent police assistance.

COURT & CRIME