sigh

It was inevitable, I guess.

We’ve been looking for furnished apartments to rent in Johannesburg for about a month now.  We wanted to stay in the Maboneng Precinct (but the only apartments available have been single-room bachelor pads)… so we decided to fish around for a place in Braamfontein.  I know a couple of folk who live and work in Braamies (and have been involved in a lot of the developments and upgrades there) – and we were very kindly hooked up with a nice, furnished loft apartment on Biccard Street.  It’s very small though… and I would have preferred something bigger…

And then I saw the ad (posted on Gumtree).  It was for a penthouse apartment;  2 bedrooms, wonderfully spacious – there was even a roof-top pool.  And – it was cheaper than the small apartment we had organised in Braamies.

Sure… it was a little bit out of our preferred area (closer to the public library than to the bustling coffee-shops and food market of Braamies)… but hey – it was BIG… and it was FURNISHED… and it had a DISHWASHER… and a POOL!

So – I sent an e-mail expressing my interest.

And I didn’t hear back from anyone.

“Rats!”, I say to Nick, “We’ve missed it.  Somebody got it before us”.

(This has happened a few times.  When people don’t get back to us, it’s usually because the apartment in question has already been taken).

But then today…  I received a very friendly message from somebody called Estelle Manera.  Estelle writes:

Hi,
  
Sorry for my late reply, I was completely overwhelmed by the large number of inquiries and just managed to respond them.
Thanks for your inquiry, I can rent my apartment for long/short term, is fully furnished but can be rented unfurnished too (same price), utilities included (water, electricity, internet). 
The monthly price is ZAR 7050. Pets are allowed. 
There is washer/dryer in the apartment, A/C, dishwasher, parking, safe neighbourhood, nice neighbours, very quiet, no noise, close to transportation and everything else.
Apartment Address is: The Bank, 87 Commissioner St, Johannesburg, Gauteng 2000
Please tell me what exactly are you looking for and which are your requirements, as well as some information about who is going to live in the apartment.
 
Thank you,
Estelle Manera
Hmmm.
And right there, my suspicions are aroused.  Something doesn’t feel right about Estelle’s reply.  First of all, most people would write R7050…  not ZAR 7050.  Secondly… who, in Jozi, says “Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2000”?
So I do a bit of googling on our friend, Estelle… and immediately find her on Brazil’s scam-list…  along with her reply to another website …. offering another apartment…. to somebody else.
Same old copy-and-paste method-of-the-Scammer.  Here’s her ad on the Brazillian website:

I can rent my apartment for short or long term; is fully furnished at the moment, but could be rented unfurnished too (same price); utilities included (water, electricity, condominium, internet). 
The monthly price is Reais 1110. Pets are allowed. 
There is washer/dryer in the apartment, A/C, dishwasher, parking, safe neighbourhood, nice neighbours, very quiet, no noise, close to transportation and everything else.
Apartment Address is: Rua Professor Lemos de Brito 27 – Barra – Salvador – Bahia – 40140-090
I uploaded more photos here (actual): http://postimg.org/gallery/acbepwia/
Please tell me what exactly are you looking for and which are your requirements, as well as some information about who is going to rent the apartment. 

Thank you,
Estelle Manera
estellestelle@outlook.com

Magically…. the Brazillian accommodation (with a whole new set of photos collected from God knows where)… has the exact same details as the apartment in Johannesburg.  Complete with “parking, safe neighbourhood, nice neighbours, very quiet, no noise, close to transportation and everything else”.
*sigh*
A scammer.  First things first, I report the gumtree advert as a fraud (don’t want other unsuspecting people to fall in to that trap – although I’m pretty sure that Estelle has a number of different properties for rent offered throughout the world… and someone is going to fall for it).
Her next e-mail arrived about 20 minutes ago.  It says:
Hi again Heather,
  
We can sign a Lease agreement between 3 months – 5 years, with the option to extend it further.
Couple info about me, I am a British woman in my thirties, recently divorced, worked 2 years in South Africa for the BBC News Channel and returned back to UK because I am pregnant, and I decided to rent my apartment so that I could pay my rent here in UK. The apartment became my property after the divorce was finalized. 
I am asking for the first month of rent (ZAR 7,050) plus 1 month as security deposit, it’s ZAR 14,100 in total. The security deposit (ZAR 7,050) is refundable at the end of your Lease.
The apartment is available for rent immediately, you only need to get the keys and the contract to check it, and see if you would like it. 
Obviously we need a way to complete our rental, that will allow us to make sure we receive what we are after. For that I chose to hire an international Real Estate agency named STEWART International, who will intermediate the rental procedure for us (here are explained their real estate escrow services: http://www.stewart.com/international/escrow-services)
For more details don’t hesitate to contact me. 
 
Thanks,
Estelle Manera
By now… fully aware that it’s a scam (but I’m just oh-so-curious to see how she responds)… I ask whether somebody can visit the apartment today.  I get an immediate reply:
Dear Heather,
 
Just so you understand better, this is the Stewart International rental procedure:
-You give me your details (full name, current address, phone number) and I will register our transaction with STEWART 
-You will receive their confirmation after I register our transaction, and they give you further details/instructions.
-Then you pay STEWART the deposit of ZAR 14,100 (as per their invoice request)
-Once your deposit is validated, STEWART sends the keys and documents to your address and chose a convenient date and time for inspection (an agent will meet you at the apartment at the booked date/time).
-You will then have 14 days to decide if you want to rent the apartment, since the inspection date
-If you decide to rent the apartment, your Security Deposit (ZAR 7,050) will be held into their custody until the end of your lease when you will receive it back.
-If you do not want to rent the apartment, you give the keys/contract back to the agent and you get your money back at the moment (there won’t be any hiding/extra fees).
This will be in writing in the contract I will sign with this company. The company fees will be paid by me when I will initiate the procedure.
 
I will wait your soon reply and if you agree with everything, I will need your details and I will get the ball rolling with STEWART International 
 
Thanks,
Estelle Manera
Interesting that she links so frequently to Stewart (which seems to be a legit organisation).  I imagine that – should I pursue this further (out of sheer curiosity) – she’ll put me in contact with another *person* (probably herself pretending to be somebody from Stewart…. with a second e-mail address that has “stewart” in it somewhere) who will supply banking details.
Also… interesting to note how her e-mail address changes all the time.  First it’s estelle.manera@outlook.com – but in her messages to me, she supplies two more e-mails:  manera.estelle@outlook.com and estelle.estelle@outlook.com.   Jeez – how do these people keep up with it all? 

This – of course – is CLASSIC scam stuff…. the PAY FIRST to “release the apartment”… or to “release the money”… or whatever.  Big, big promises – but you *MUST* pay first.

So… I thought I had heard of all the typical internet scams… but this is the first time I’ve seen a property scam.  Very creative thinkers, these guys.
As the old saying goes:  “If it seems too good to be true – it usually is”.
Nuff said.
UPDATE:  These kinds of scammers change their names regularly.  There’s one currently going around called Ginette Roper.  Please guys – be aware of the many-many-many scammers out there – and don’t pay for ANYTHING upfront!!  Ever.  Even if someone offers you the whole world and everything in it.