Fake adverts posted on marketplace websites have cost UAE residents tens of thousands of dirhams in a series of scams offering luxury apartments that do not exist for rent.
Renters who responded to adverts made payments by money exchanges or cryptocurrency portals.
Short-term lets and long-term rentals were advertised in luxury buildings including Sky View Tower in the Address Hotel and Boulevard Central Tower in Business Bay.
One woman said she responded to an advert on Dubizzle and was then directed to an Airbnb website that turned out to be fake.
“I found it on Google and got in touch with the landlord, who then emailed me back asking to contact her on WhatsApp,” said Tara, who lives and works in Dubai.
“She told me to do everything through Airbnb as it was easier that way.
“I didn’t check the URL, but they created a website identical with the Airbnb site I had used before.
“The only difference was I couldn’t open my profile, other than that it looked like a genuine page.”
The landlady asked for all fees for the short-term let to be paid by Moneygram, about Dh6,500 a month.
As Tara was about to start a job, she did not want to commit to a longer term rental until she had completed her probation period.
She insisted on using Western Union and paid the Dh6,500 in two transactions.
When the bank returned the first payment because it looked like a suspicious account, Tara turned to Moneygram to complete the transaction.
“I had to call Western Union several times to verify the payment, but they refused to pay it, so I had to pay it via Moneygram instead,” she said.
“The landlady said I would get the keys within 24 hours, but I did not hear from her again.
“I’ve tried calling her so many times.
“It’s very frustrating as I don’t know my rights and what I can do to get my money back."
Tara said the scam appeared to be very organised.
“It was all so believable, I just don’t want it to happen to anyone else," she said.
Another victim of a similar online fake property on Dubizzle was Ciro, a security lecturer in the UAE, who asked not to be fully identified.
Ciro was helping a girlfriend who was about to start work in Dubai and wanted to rent a flat.
“She was looking at properties on Dubizzle, but none of the phone numbers would work so we could only get in touch by email,” Ciro said.
“All the replies we had were the same, with a similar story about how the property owner had left Dubai and was relocating to the UK."
The renter experienced a similar story to other cases, with the landlord saying they had left the country and was looking to rent out the property quickly.
“They said the best option was to rent out their apartment via Airbnb. I was sent an Airbnb link where the property was listed so I could process the payment," Ciro said.
“I am not stupid and know how to look for suspicious websites, but their site looked legitimate and there was nothing to suspect it was fraudulent."
The property booking page Ciro was directed to had all the usual booking forms and property details.
He was then directed to the usual payment portal to pay the first month's rent and security deposit, and the site asked for a one-time password from his bank to authorise the transaction.
“Because I did this, the bank did not recognise this payment as a fraud,” Ciro said.
“My payment was two transactions of Dh7,049, they did not go to Airbnb, but a cryptocurrency company based in London called Ramp.
“I contacted the company and they said there was nothing they could do as it was an anonymous transaction that I had authorised.”
He later received several more emails re-advertising the same property, so he reported it to Airbnb.
Rental payments for fake apartment used to buy Bitcoin
A complaint was made to Ramp, but it said both transactions were for Bitcoin and settled into an online wallet.
“As per Visa MasterCard rules, the customer is liable for transactions performed,” Ramp said.
“The customer either shared access credentials or performed the transaction – in both cases they are liable for the result.
“Ramp acted in good faith and delivered as ordered. As this delivery was done via blockchain, it is final and irreversible so there are no refunds.”
In a statement on previous scams offering fake rental properties given to The National, Airbnb said it works hard to remove illegal adverts from third party websites when reported.
“These third party websites have nothing to do with Airbnb, and when brought to our attention we work with external partners to report them and get them removed,” a representative said.
“Airbnb protects hosts and guests by handling all payment and communications through our secure platform, and we provide information and resources to help our community stay safe online, including how to identify a genuine Airbnb link or email and why you should only pay and communicate through Airbnb.”
Dubai Police has issued repeated warnings over sophisticated online scams that lure users in with attractive offers.
Any attempt to ask for bank details, respond to links or reading out one time passwords (OTPs) should be viewed with suspicion.
Attempted scams can be reported via eCrime.ae or by calling 901.
Dubizzle did not respond for a request to comment.
Staying safe online - Airbnb tips for consumers
1: If you arrive at a site that looks like Airbnb through an email link or other kind of redirection, ensure that the address contains "https://" and does not contain any odd additional characters or words.
2: Be wary of emails that ask you to click a link and enter personal, sensitive information. Email filters are becoming increasingly effective at screening malicious content, but they will never be perfect.
3: Look out for emails that have a false sense of urgency. For example, "Unless you click this link your Airbnb account will be disabled," or "Your account has been compromised".
4: Keep yourself, your payment, and your personal information protected by staying on our secure platform throughout the entire process – from communication, to booking and payment. You should never be asked to wire money, provide credit card information or otherwise pay a host directly.