On the trail of the scammer who conned renters out of deposits with fake property ads

  • ITV News has been following the trail of one prolific scammer who used fake property ads to convince prospective tenants across the British Isles to part with their deposits

Victims of an online rental scam are pleading with social media providers and the police to make it harder for culprits to strike.

An ITV News investigation has revealed dozens of people were targeted by the same Facebook user who placed false property adverts on the platform in a bid to take deposits from prospective tenants.

Emma Johnson was moving from Wigan to take up a new job in Guernsey when she thought she had found the perfect home. The person behind the ad called themselves "Pete Ford".

This identity though had been stolen and after further research, Emma realised there was a problem.

Emma said: "I Googled the street name and I saw the same photographs that he'd sent me were actually in an estate agent's online brochure of a flat that was for sale, not to rent"

She contacted the estate agents, who confirmed "Pete Ford" was not the owner and had no permission to advertise the property. In fact, records showed no one by that name owns property in the area.

Despite this, the fake ads and information kept on coming, and it wasn't long before another victim spoke out.

"He contacted me with a very convincing walkthrough video of an apartment," said Simon Hughes, a successful Guernsey businessman.

"After a bit more convincing, I gave him my debit card details. He said 'I won't take the money out until you've had a chance to look at the flat' so that all seemed quite genuine."

Soon after though Simon was warned by another user that he could be the victim of a scammer, so he called his bank and cancelled the card. The fake Pete Ford account had already tried to take £1,000.

This is the message Simon was sent by another Facebook user to warn him about the scam.

It's not just home-hunters that have fallen victim to this profile's methods - Kris and Helen were offered a holiday let in the Isle of Man, which they were planning to visit for the world-famous TT races.

The trip was particularly special for Kris who lost his father - a huge biking fan - in 2019.

He was going to scatter his dad's ashes after "putting him on the handlebars" and doing "a lap of the circuit with him".

But those plans were dampened by the discovery the £540 they'd paid for the holiday home went to a scammer.

"I just felt sick," Kris's partner Helen James said.

The pictures they'd seen were taken from a flat for sale 100 miles away in Edinburgh, and the money didn't go to London where "Pete Ford" says he's based but instead to Nigeria.

Helen said: "The computer's in front of me so I just Googled this guy and then it all came up. I rang Kris straight away and I said, 'you're not going to believe this, that guy has scammed us'."

While the "Pete Ford" known to these victims doesn't exist, the identity used to form the fake profile does.

The scam account claims to be a director at innocent, the multi-million-pound drinks company. But in fact, the real Pete Ford left that job last year and told ITV News that his identity had been stolen.

He explained the "hurt" and "distress" he's experienced as a result of having his details used in this way.

"As a finance professional, there is an element of integrity that goes with that and being even tangentially connected with fraud could be problematic from a professional perspective as well so it is a real kick in the teeth," Pete explained.

The scammer claims to be a director at the drinks company, Innocent, where the real Pete Ford - pictured - used to work.

He says he's reported the fake profile to Facebook six times but never heard back.

"They're almost saying it's nothing to do with me, whereas it completely is to do with them,"

"They're hosting fraudulent activity and as far as they're perpetuating the crime by not acting responsibly."

Several others, including Kris, said they have also made complaints, only to get the same result.

"Every single one of them said they contacted Facebook and every single one of them said Facebook didn't respond. Nothing," he explained.

"I find it disgusting you can go straight on Facebook right now and Pete Ford, he's on there and he's still doing it and Facebook have not done anything."

It was only following ITV News' investigation that Facebook took down the fake profile.

In a statement, Facebook's parent company Meta told us: "We're sorry to hear people are being misled in this way. We invest heavily in technology and people to remove scammers from our platforms like we did in this case.

"We also encourage people to report activity like this to us and the police, so we can take action."

The London offices of Facebook's parent company, Meta, which took down the fake profile following ITV News' investigation. Credit: PA

The three scams referenced in this investigation weren't reported to the police because the victims either realised in time or got the money back from their bank.

The real Pete Ford did, however, contact police through Action Fraud:

"After a few weeks I got what felt to me like a very anonymous, standardised response that basically went, we're not doing anything," he said.

"I've literally been banging my head against the wall, going 'what more can I do?'"

Action Fraud said the case was assessed by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau at the City of London Police, but has not been passed to a police force for investigation because "identity theft is not classed as fraud and reports of this nature should be categorised as an information report rather than a crime".

In Westminster, MPs are in the process of debating the Online Safety Bill, in the hopes of making it harder to spread harmful content.

It promises tougher action to protect people from scams by putting the onus on social media companies to fight fraud.

Five ways to keep yourself safe from rental scams:

  • Never hand over cash without viewing a property in person

  • Always meet the landlord or agent in person

  • Check out any agent’s credentials

  • Be wary of high-pressure sales tactics

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

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