Search for flatmate turns sour

ADAM ROBERTS ADAMR@NELSONMAIL.CO.NZ
Last updated 13:00 06/07/2012

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A former Nelson College for Girls student looking for a flatmate ended up embroiled in an online money laundering scam.

Kelly Tarlton's penguin keeper Susan McGuire advertised a room in her Auckland flat on Trade Me, adding her email address to the listing so she could receive inquiries.

She soon received an email from a girl named "Vanessa", who said she was living in Manchester, England, but was travelling to New Zealand soon to study for a masters degree in history, and was keen to take the room.

After receiving a few emails, Ms McGuire noticed that the woman had limited use of English, with odd sentence structure and the use of United States spellings like "mom" rather than "mum".

"It was not like someone who spoke English as a first language."

When asked about this, Vanessa said she grew up in the United States but then moved to Britain. She also attached a supposed photo of herself to one email.

"I sent a photo back of myself and my fiance, which makes me cringe," Ms McGuire said.

Vanessa asked for Ms McGuire's bank account details so she could deposit the bond. After checking with her bank that she would not be at risk by doing so, Ms McGuire sent them.

The woman then emailed to say her father was in Bahrain and was unable to send her the money for an airfare to New Zealand. She asked whether her father could deposit money into Ms McGuire's account, with Ms McGuire forwarding some of that money to Vanessa.

Ms McGuire said that at this point, she became convinced she was being scammed.

Shortly afterwards, another email arrived, saying that Vanessa's father had transferred $1000 into Ms McGuire's account – the daily transfer limit for her bank – confirming Ms McGuire's suspicions.

"I said, `Quite clearly, this is a scam. A few pointers for next time: use English rather than American, be consistent. As soon as you mention a country such as Bahrain, you're screwed'." Vanessa replied that she was very offended, and asked for the money to be sent immediately.

Ms McGuire then received a phone call from the ANZ Bank fraud team, telling her that someone in Nigeria had accessed another ANZ account that recently transferred money to her.

The money came from another bank customer, an older man in Palmerston North, who did not realise his account had been taken over. The scammer was using Ms McGuire's account as a way of laundering the money.

Her account was frozen by the bank and the money returned.

Ms McGuire said the experience was a wake-up call.

"It kind of hurt in a way to think that there are people out there who will try it on."

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Trade Me head of trust and safety Jon Duffy said people listing flats on the auction website should put their contact details in the designated area, rather than in the main body of the listing, so they could only be seen by Trade Me users.

The site blocked logins from high-risk countries like Nigeria and Romania, so this would automatically cut down on the risk of scammers accessing email addresses, he said.

Mr Duffy said a stranger offering to move into a flat without seeing it, or offering a complicated story, should raise a red flag.

Scammers were usually quick to exploit the motivations of their targets, he said.

"Here, the longer you have been advertising your flat, the more desperate you are. Your defences might drop."

It was the first time he had heard of someone using a "flatmate wanted" ad to recruit a money mule, but the technique had been used in job postings.

ANZ senior communications manager Stefan Herrick said the laundering scam had been active for years and was not specific to any bank.

He said people caught in similar scams should contact their bank, which could quickly confirm if the deposit was legitimate and offer advice to protect the customer.

- Nelson

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