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fraud mob 'Hackerville' gangs behind rental scams that netted €1m for criminals, say gardaí

Many of those duped in accommodation frauds are under 25

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Det Supt Michael Cryan

Det Supt Michael Cryan

Det Supt Michael Cryan

Senior gardaí say organised crime gangs are involved in rental scams which have led to almost €1m being stolen from unsuspecting victims since February 2019.

Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan, who set up Operation Omena to tackle the mobs, told the Herald that "there is a significant organised crime element to what has been happening with these rental frauds".

Officers from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) have identified a gang from the Romanian city of Ramnicu Valcea, which has been nicknamed 'Hackerville'.

The central Romanian city earned its dubious title because more than 80 of its inhabitants have been arrested as part of a major EU crackdown on the fraud mob.

The gang at the centre of the lengthy probe is suspected of carrying out thousands of organised frauds in other EU countries and then using Irish financial institutions to launder the cash. Gardaí believe members of this criminal organisation have been involved in some of the rental scams here.

"Primarily, this gang have been involved in two different types of organised fraud in Europe," a senior source said.

"One of the scams has targeted customers of Airbnb and many other accommodation providers all across Europe.

"Customers have been duped into paying money for bogus accommodation. They think they are renting genuine accommodation but in fact the money is being diverted to the organised criminal gang, who have set up false websites.

"In other cases, people have been conned into paying huge money for all kinds of items, from watches to cars to tractors, in this very elaborate internet fraud.

"As soon as the cash goes into the gang's bank account, it is removed from it by the criminals."

With students preparing to return to college, gardaí have highlighted how a huge percentage of those who have fallen for rental scams in previous years have been under the age of 25.

Gardaí said that while incidents have been declining in the past 18 months with Covid-19 restrictions, there was still reason to be cautious.

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Det Supt Cryan said only recognised letting agencies or "bona fide" people should be trusted.

"Websites can be cloned. Check the URL to ensure it's a real website and take note of the privacy and refund policy sections," he said.

"Be very wary of social media advertisements or where a person letting the location will only communicate via Messenger or WhatsApp.

"You should push for direct answers and if responses are vague, disengage immediately.

"Watch out for unsolicited contacts or where the contact appears to be based in other jurisdictions, and especially if there is a sense of urgency like a one-time offer.

"If you have decided to take up the offer, only use trusted money transfer systems. I would recommend using a credit card.

"Never transfer money direct, pay cash, and never pay into cryptocurrency wallets.

"Be wary if a website is asking you to send money to a random PayPal address, or wire it by Western Union, or pay in iTunes gift cards, or if they only deal in cryptocurrency.

"The majority of the time, those methods are done to avoid scrutiny and ensure that a transaction can't be reversed."

There were a total of 503 cases of rental scams reported between February 1, 2019, and May 31 this year.

Almost half of these incidents took place in the Dublin region, with just over €900,000 stolen in rental scams over this period.

Some 42pc of all injured parties were under the age of 25, while 72pc were under 35.

Separately, specialist GNECB detectives were involved in a search yesterday morning in the capital's north inner city as part of a major Europol investigation which led to a number of arrests across Europe.

Gardaí have been working closely with Dutch and Romanian police to target a mob suspected of making millions of euro from all types of fraud.

The target of the raid yesterday was a Romanian woman who was not arrested. However, officers did seize €9,000 in cash, as well as mobile phones and documentation.

"The information is that she is close to one of the main players in this gang," a senior source said.

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