Claer's stepson has a job in Exeter and was anxious to find a home © Ian Dagnall/Alamy
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‘My new landlord is asking for a viewing deposit of £400 before I can see the room. Are viewing deposits an actual thing now?”

I was in the middle of a meeting when this message from my 22-year-old stepson flashed up on my phone. Having landed his first proper job, he is moving to Exeter, and placed an ad seeking a room on SpareRooms.co.uk. He was contacted by “Julie” who was offering, in his words, a room that seemed “too good to be true”.

Pictures she sent looked amazing: the property was in a great location and the rent was much lower than for similar rooms. He’d arranged a viewing at 6pm the next day — only to be told by “Julie” that a “viewing deposit” of £400 had to be paid in advance via bank transfer.

“So many other renters have let me down by not showing up, so I hope you understand,” she said in an email, explaining this would be deducted from his first month’s rent.

As a reassurance, she sent an email of a passport in her name — which, of course, proved nothing, as “Julie” was not present for him to verify that the picture was her.

My stepson was suspicious but like many young people he was in a hurry to secure somewhere to live. Thanks to his former student landlord in Bristol, he was skint, as his deposit had yet to be returned. If that money had been in his account, maybe he would have been tempted. If so, he would have instantly waved his £400 goodbye.

More than £22m has been lost to rental fraud since April 2014, according to Action Fraud, with the average victim losing nearly £1,400. In just over 400 cases, the victims lost £5,000 or more. July and August are the peak months for these fraudsters, because of holiday property scams and huge numbers of students looking for a place to live.

Most people in the Financial Times office will have heard me call him back as I bellowed down the phone: “Stop! Don’t give her the money, it’s a scam!”

To prove this beyond all doubt, I got him to email “Julie” a few questions, such as: “How do I know you are really the owner of this property?”

A “certificate of title” was emailed by return, showing the full address and postcode. It had a logo, an official-looking stamp and a squiggly signature. I could, however, tell instantly that it was a fake because it wasn’t issued by the Land Registry.

“The Land what?” my stepson said.

I then paid £3 to do an online search on the Land Registry database, which showed that the property belonged to someone else and had done for 20 years.

I wrote to the owner, and he responded a few days later, confirming he definitely did not have a room for rent. So it would have been rather awkward if my stepson had turned up for the viewing at 6pm.

Then there was the bank account. “Julie” said it was a Barclays business account. I checked the details using an online sort-code checker, which showed it was from a money transfer system. Barclays later confirmed this.

If “Julie” really had been using a Barclays account, the bank said it would have “acted swiftly” to investigate and freeze the assets or close it down. “The key thing here is timing,” said Barclays. “In many of these cases, the scammers have already withdrawn the money before the victim has realised what’s happened.”

By now, “Julie” was tetchy that my stepson hadn’t paid up. She sent another email that began: “I would like you to know that I am a God-fearing woman.”

“OK, now I can see she’s definitely a scam artist,” my stepson replied.

Staff at the SpareRoom website were helpful. “Julie” was rapidly blocked (another user had also reported her, so this had happened even before we got in touch). We also reported the scam attempt to Action Fraud.

The SpareRoom website and others like it operate as listings services rather than property lettings agencies. SpareRoom advises that as with any form of online dealing, it’s always important to be “careful and safety conscious”.

Its list of “safety tips for room seekers” details almost all the alarm bells I’ve mentioned here. Don’t trust ads that seem too good to be true. Never pay anything before viewing a room. Never pay anything via anonymous money transfer services and use a sort-code checker to be sure. Don’t accept an emailed scan of ID from someone you haven’t met. It also provides a link to the Land Registry search tool. The only problem was that my stepson never saw this part of the website.

SpareRoom told me that it is in the middle of “a complete overhaul of our information and advice for exactly this reason”.

“We take rental fraud extremely seriously,” said Matt Hutchinson, SpareRoom director. “We have a full-time moderation team working to keep people safe. Every single ad submitted is run through an automated set of filters designed to pick up anything suspect.”

The good news is that my stepson quickly found a legitimate landlord offering a room on the website and has learnt a life lesson in the process.

If there is a young person who you worry could fall victim to rental fraud, ask them to look up the comedian Joe Lycett on YouTube. My Twitter followers alerted me to his brilliant sketch, where he mercilessly winds up a property scammer and reads out the ensuing email chain. Fraud is no laughing matter — but this should be compulsory viewing for anyone renting a property online.

Claer Barrett is editor of FT Money. Email: claer.barrett@ft.com; Twitter: @Claerb

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