Victims of a property rental scam in Dubai could lose tens of thousands of dirhams after falling foul of fake websites offering flats at knock-down prices.
Several people shelled out more than Dh10,000 a time in short-term lets and deposits on properties that either did not exist or were not owned by rogue sellers.
Lawyers urged others who may have been scammed to come forward and pass on evidence to police.
Mairead O’Malley, an Irish teacher who moved to Dubai five years ago, was searching for a short-term rental online when she fell victim to the scam.
“I was looking for an apartment to rent and registered interest in place in Sports City,” she said.
“That is when I was diverted to an advert on Dubizzle and then Airbnb.
“I was sent a direct link to a flat owned by woman in her 70s, who said she had bought it as a holiday home.
“I could see her profile, and there were plenty of positive reviews.”
Ms O’Malley, 32, was offered a discounted rate of Dh5,500 a month for the one-bedroom apartment if she could pay two months up front and a Dh2,000 deposit.
She was sent a link to a payment page where she entered her credit card details to make two transactions of Dh5,800 and Dh8,200.
When further attempts were made to charge her card with Dh11,000 and Dh3,000, she realised it was a scam and cancelled her bank card.
“It was all very sophisticated,” she said.
“I sent all the information to Airbnb as the adverts had the same logos they would use, but they said there was nothing they could do about it.”
Alex Collins, a British 25-year-old who moved to Dubai to take up a recruitment job in January, had a similar experience.
He lost Dh11,500 rent on a flat that did not exist.
“We found an advert on Dubizzle for a one bedroom apartment in Cayan Tower in Dubai Marina, so we registered interest,” said Mr Collins.
“We then had an email response from a woman who said she was in Germany and the flat was a holiday home.
“I was sent a link online to a live chat I thought was with Airbnb, so I could ask terms of the contract, when we could pay and other normal tenancy questions.
“I was then sent a live payment page, that looked exactly like the usual page you would be sent by Airbnb.”
Mr Collins paid a deposit and two months rent, but only realised he had been scammed when he visited Cayan Tower to arrange a move-in notice.
“When I asked the security guard at the building, she said there was no such apartment under the name I had been given,” he said.
“I emailed the woman straight away, but didn’t get a response.”
Mr Collins reported the incident to police and cancelled his bank cards.
Several others reported similar experiences on social media.
Claire Grainger, a property law specialist and senior partner at Naji Beidoun Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai, said similar rental scams were increasing in frequency.
“These crimes are horrendous as they take advantage of innocent people who suffer,” she said.
“I have had clients not knowing where they will live after spending substantial sums on a deposit for a new home.
“Unfortunately we are seeing property scams more regularly.
“If you are a victim you must call the police as they can often help.”
All Airbnb properties should be registered with the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing to comply with strict regulations for those wishing to obtain a holiday home license.
Police reports can be taken to the rental dispute centre in Dubai and a case can be filed with the court.
Incidents can be registered online with the Dubai Police cyber-crimes division.
Victims are encouraged to hand over copies of payments, the advert and any correspondence with the person who tried to sell the unit.
“Copies of an email trail are also particularly useful as it will have data showing where it has come from,” said Ms Grainger.
“Police are very pro-active in these kind of scams, as it is not usually an individual responsible, but a syndicated crime unit.
“If you don’t report it, the police cannot chase it and follow-up.
“Banks can’t do much unfortunately, but if a victim has paid on a credit card, there may be insurance.”
Anyone visiting property rental sites like Airbnb can take precautions by ensuring any weblink begins with “https://".
“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 spokeswoman for Airbnb 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."
A representative for Dubizzle said: "It is unfortunate that, despite all the measures we take to reduce scams, some of our users have been sent a link to a fake Airbnb listing to rent properties.
“We try our best to ensure we only host legitimate and trustworthy listings on our platform, with our team regularly checking all ads that are listed."
He said it was "very rare" that listings that appear to be valid, but are not, go live on the website.
“In cases where a link to another platform is shared, such as Airbnb, we advise our users to manually go to the official site
“We are always on our user's side and once the police contact us about the case in question, we hand over the necessary details of the suspicious user to the authorities so that they can investigate further.”