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  • Technology

    The Virtual Conman

    The Virtual Conman: Are You Safe Online?

    Online scams, spam, fraud and phishing: we’re in the digital age of the Virtual Conman. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of online scams in the lettings industry. And landlords and tenants are particular targets for scammers because of the common practice of sharing personal information and making financial transactions online to secure a tenancy.

    A recent article reported that a gang in Stockport almost got away with selling a millionaire’s £750,000 bungalow. The gang intercepted the property owner’s mail and transferred the deeds into one of the gang member’s names. They were caught when the owner’s daughter saw the property listed on Rightmove.

    Many companies, and more importantly their customers, have also fallen prey to sophisticated ‘phishing’ scams. An email is sent, seemingly from the company using logos and similar layouts, to the company’s customer database. The customer may be asked to ‘verify their account’ or ‘urgently update their details’.

    When the link is followed, the customer will be taken to a bogus site and once they’ve entered their details- their email address and password is stolen. It’s particularly worrying considering many people use the same email address and password for all, or most, of their online accounts containing personal or financial information.

    Another scam, aimed at tenants this time, is to advertise a property at a very low price (think: too good to be true and it probably is) and when the inevitable flood of enquiries comes in, they ask for deposit bank transfers to ‘secure’ the property.

    Often these are properties that the scammers have managed to get photos of and then post online. The tenant has no protection if they transfer the deposit as no contract has been signed.

    So this all sounds very scary, what can we do when virtually (excuse the pun) everything we do is online?

    As an online company, Upad need to be vigilant about scammers. Our Approvals team manually checks every single advert that is placed with Upad. This is to ensure that portal criteria is met, along with ensuring that an ad that is suspiciously underpriced does not go live to unsuspecting tenants and that the owner of the property is the one advertising the property, or has permission from the owner to do so. We check ownership using the Landmark Register and if there’s no match, we ask for further proof from the person advertising- such as a mortgage statement or utility bill.

    To comply with data protection, when a tenant makes an enquiry about a Upad property, we will only send their details onto the landlord if they agree to do so with a secondary link sent from Upad.

    Other scams you should keep an eye out for;

    Suspicious Sender: Firstly, never open an email that looks suspicious. If you’re not sure, ask the sender to verify the information but never click on any links in an email if you can’t be sure who sent it.

    Updating Details: Check with a company over the phone if you’re asked to update any personal or financial details, or contact your bank. No legitimate company would need you to ‘urgently’ update your details. Always double check, and if it’s a scam (it probably is) then delete it.

    Passwords: As difficult as it can be to remember them all- don’t use the exact same password for all of your accounts. If your details are stolen, at least most of your accounts will be safe. Try varying the numbers or capitalization you use on a memorable word.

    Other tips from the National Crime Agency include;

    1: Never open emails from an unknown source

    2: Don’t respond to anti-virus software messages that pop up online

    3: Install anti-spyware

    4: Use a firewall

    5: Make sure your computer software is bang up-to-date as this will include the latest security measures.

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    Great article and one that is necessary to raise awareness, but could I please clarify one very important aspect.

    Most malware and scams emanate from viruses, as that is the way they can hide their true origin.

    With this in mind it is important to understand how viruses actually propagate. Viruses in the virtual world are very similar to viruses in the real world. You will catch the flue or a cold from someone you know and have contact with. On the other hand you don't tend to catch them from a total stranger you have never met.

    The virtual world is the same if I get infected with a virus, that virus will go into my address book and send itself onto everyone in it. With that in mind all my friends and acquaintances will also get the email with the attachment containing the virus. This is making best use of what is known as social engineering.

    Therefore whilst the advice of "Never open emails from an unknown source" is most definitely right you should also consider never opening an email from a trusted source unless you are absolutely certain it comes from them. Ringing a friend or colleague is much cheaper than repairing the reputation of your business.

    Look for personalisation in the email, viruses find it very difficult to be human and the personal message from your friend may mean it is actually them. In contrast be wary of minimalist emails that say "Hi look at this its funny" or even "Hi Paul I thought I would send this to you as you may like it", remember if your email address contains your name it is not a stretch for the virus to use that in the body to trick you. I have also noticed recently viruses using the senders email signature with logos, obviously the virus has been programmed to copy it as it will help its onward deployment as more recipients will open it if it has your signature in it.

    Don't forget viruses can be very clever and very dumb at the same time so always have your guard up when receiving an email with a file or even a link to a website.

    Always bear one thing in mind, it can take a couple of minutes to validate but hours and hours to fix.

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    Landlord with 25 years’ experience in the property market and a specialist in tenant referencing ID and credit screening. Creator of identity, credit and anti-money laundering system ValidID.co.uk