An Irish student has warned her fellow J1 travelers (those on summer working visas) to beware of a rental scam in the US that cost her and her friends almost $5,000.
Leah Hughes (21), from Clonskeagh in Dublin, had been planning the trip of a lifetime - a summer in Los Angeles with four of her friends. The group wired $4,750 to a man claiming to own a property in Santa Monica on a reputable rental website, but he pocketed the money and left them with nothing.
Leah, a journalism student from Dublin Business School, said: "Half of our accommodation money is gone. We've lost 750 euro each, which is half of what we were able to spend so we've decided we don't want to go to LA. I don't want to even think that I'm living in the same area as this guy who did this.
“But we still want to go because we've paid for our flights and for our J1 visa but we're going to go to San Francisco instead. We don't have a house yet to stay in because we haven't been able to find anywhere that we can afford."
Unfortunately, this kind of scam which cost Leah and her friends is common in the US.
Celine Kennelly of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center in San Francisco said, "Our advice is, if someone asks you to wire money ahead of arriving here, don't do it. We've had this situation before and many students get scammed this way every year. We want to get the message out there to people that wiring money over to someone you don't know just isn't safe."
Instead, students are urged to find a cheap hostel for the first few nights in their city of choice and use that as a base to look for accommodation when they arrive.
Leah was tricked into believing she was dealing with a genuine landlord because she found the property on an established site that is used by people looking for accommodation all over the world.
She said, "He sent me all the photographs of the place by email. It was listed on the website. According to the website it existed and it was legitimate. He forwarded me his house address and a copy of his passport and bank details and we were emailing back and forth with general questions from the group and we decided to go ahead."
The first payment of $4,750 was to cover their rent for five weeks plus a $500 security. Leah first became concerned when the man came back looking for more money once she had wired the first load of cash.
She said: "He sent me a confirmation email document to say he'd received the money and in that document there was a piece that said the further 50pc will be due two months prior to your arrival. At that point, that would have been two weeks later. I argued and told him we weren't able to do that. Even if we wanted to, we didn't have the money. We're all students and working hard to raise money for this trip."
But the demands continued until he finally stopped communicating with Leah four weeks ago.
She has since contacted the real agents for the property she thought she would be renting and they told her they had never heard of the man who had tricked her into handing over so much of the group's savings.
It is possible that the con artist managed to hack into the account of a genuine landlord or letting agency, giving him access to all the relevant information and making it look as though he was offering a legitimate deal.
Leah has reported the fraud to the gardai (police) who are investigating.
She added: "I want to make sure that nobody else gets caught out like this. If someone asks you to wire money, just don't do it."