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How I Was Taken by a Gumtree Scam

by Rosie Spinks Sep 6, 2012
…and what it taught me about digital dependency.

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS I do in the morning — somewhere between brewing a cup of Earl Grey and looking outside to assess the weather — is open a laptop.

This isn’t something I’m particularly proud of; I would much rather say I spend the first half hour of my day doing sun salutations. However, I can’t deny that the main components of my life — my work as a writer, my ability to keep in touch with family and friends while living abroad, my finances, entertainment, and reading material — are all conveniently contained within my 11″ MacBook Air.

It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of just how unchecked my dependency on the internet and trust in its immense power had become.

After several transient months on multiple continents (talking with Cape Town car guards, getting football lessons in East Africa), I returned to London craving the quasi-stability of four walls, a single bed, and cheap rent. Scrolling through the listings on Gumtree (the international equivalent of Craigslist), I eliminated any post bearing the sure signs of a scam: Western Union wire transfers, creative use of the English language, mention of any type of payment upfront.

When I found a listing well within my price range, I allowed the flat’s up-and-coming East London postcode to quell the suspicion that it was too good to be true. On visiting the nicely outfitted space, I internally gave thanks to the Powers of the Internet. Once again, it had led me to what I was sure would be subletted bliss, after only an afternoon-long search.

Move-in day came roughly a week later, after I’d paid a property manager named David (who I met in person at the flat more than once) two months’ rent + a cheeky £50 administration fee, and signed a standard 6-month rental contract in exchange for a working key to the front door (for the record, I didn’t hand over any money until the key was in my hands).

When I swung the door open on a Friday evening, there was no furniture in the flat — I’d been told it would arrive the day before. I called both David and the property management company, but their phones were now permanently switched off. Soon, five other ‘flatmates’ turned up with similar stories.

I went through that first weekend in a state of denial, avoiding the admission that I’d been scammed.

In that moment, even when the sting of being burned both financially and emotionally was at its peak, I felt the need to defend my faith in the internet.

By the time the rightful owner of the property — who for two months failed to notice his flat had been broken into — showed up to start the eviction process, I had long since moved on. But the simplicity of what happened was clear by that Monday morning: Two scammers had spent one week taking five people for a total of £3,000. All they needed to do it was a Gumtree ad, pay-as-you go cell phones, and a dishonest locksmith willing to bust and change a lock without proof of address.

Prior to this experience, I’d always thought of Gumtree and Craigslist scammers as being relatively easy to spot. However, by offering to show potential renters around the flat multiple times before taking any money, posing as a property rental company, and issuing and signing a standard rental housing contract, these guys had put up a convincing front of legitimacy. I’ve entered on-the-level living arrangements on much shakier terms. And what kind of scammer would offer to buy me coffee while we went over the specifics of the contract?

Sitting at the Bethnal Green Police Station with my would-be flatmates the following week, the police constable, wearing one of those ridiculous domed hats that make it hard to take UK law enforcement seriously, asked us if we had found the flat on Gumtree.

“I would never buy or do anything off Gumtree,” he said judgmentally. “Too many scams.”

In that moment, even when the sting of being burned both financially and emotionally was at its peak, I felt the need to defend my faith in the internet. I insisted to the policeman that I’d successfully found places to live using Gumtree before. Quite simply, I didn’t want to accept that the grave injury to both my pride and my bank account had come via the very thing that most aspects of my life depend on.

I was incredibly fortunate to have parents and relatives help me get back on my feet, but my inevitable anger — which lingered for weeks — was directed more at myself than the people who actually stole my money. I let the fact that the internet successfully provides for so many of my needs on a daily basis obscure something that, IRL, should have been obvious: The flat was simply too nice for the price it was offered at.

A few months have passed, and the internet and I are on better terms now. It helped me find a new flat with a nice garden and a landlord that actually exists. But our relationship will never be the same. Maybe that’s a good thing.

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