When Shruti* arrived from India, right before starting her postgraduate degree, she had already been warned by her sister that finding somewhere to live in Melbourne would not be easy. Still, she was shocked at just how tough it would be.
Shruti found her time consumed by an increasingly desperate effort to find accommodation, including having to navigate the social media fraudsters trying to exploit the vulnerable position of those like Shruti in the tight housing market.
Over three weeks of determined house hunting, Shruti contacted over a hundred landlords and tenants looking for housemates.
“It’s been pretty competitive,” she says. “They would say ‘oh we’ve got about 70, 80 applicants and we’ve shortlisted about 10 to come see the house. And then once we interview all of them, we will get back to you’.
“And every one of them has sent a very polite refusal.”
During those weeks of continuously sending out messages and attending inspections, Shruti encountered various scams. All were on Facebook.
As an international student arriving without references and a rental history, she found herself locked out of major real estate market sites. “They had very clear requirements, saying that ‘you need to have rental history’, ‘you need to have a minimum annual income of … $50,000’,” she said.
Shruti felt she had no choice but to house-hunt within the “informal” rental economy that flourishes on social media – despite the potential risks.
“I thought that to start off with, I would go on these Facebook groups, get some rental history, so then [later] I could officially apply to these legitimate sources.”
The Master of Teaching student noticed some clear warning signs. These included a landlord refusing to let her see the place before signing up, another asking her to pay a security deposit via email and a third requiring her to pay a bond on Airbnb. By recognising that these tactics were unlikely to be used by legitimate landlords or agents, Shruti managed to avoid becoming a victim.
But the Australian Catholic University student says many international students are vulnerable to being “ripped off” because of their desperation and lack of knowledge.
“There are so many people who are coming to a different country for the first time, renting out a place for the first time. They don’t know how things work.” Shruti says.
“They can’t differentiate between the good people and the bad people.”
According to a spokesman from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), there were 658 reports of rental or accommodation scams made by Australians last year to reporting portal, Scamwatch. These cost their unlucky victims reported losses of $544,846.
While Scamwatch collects data, its purpose is to educate consumers rather than investigate every report. Facebook and page administrators appear to share this belief in buyer beware — that it is up to the individual to protect themselves in the informal accommodation market.
The administrators of Facebook groups that offer platforms for people offering and seeking rental accommodation say they try to keep Facebook as “safe as possible from bad actors”. Admins told The Citizen they take measures such as screening new members, deleting irrelevant ads/posts and quickly addressing complaints and disputes. But they say it is not practical to expect them to verify all details and transactions that occur via their pages.
Justin Butterworth, administrator of popular group Fairy Floss Real Estate’, argues it is the responsibility of the Facebook user to do their own “due diligence and follow online safety practices to avoid scams.”
“Facebook is a peer-to-peer platform,” Butterworth says. “Private individuals have on and off platform direct interactions, whether it be chat, site visits, emails or transactions.
“[M]oderators, despite best efforts and care, cannot in any way take responsibility for a user getting scammed.”
“If I’m running the page, I have to take some sort of responsibility,” says Daniel Marantelli, who recently signed on to volunteer as administrator for ‘Melbourne Rooms for Rent’ after witnessing many foreigners getting scammed within the group. “But it would be impossible to monitor who’s a scammer and who’s not.”
Marantelli says he rejects 10-15 scam accounts every day, but that he cannot scam-proof the page as private messages cannot be controlled. He plans to introduce stricter guidelines for entering the group and facilitate reporting of scammers.
After becoming concerned that many of the groups she was visiting were “fishy”, Shruti says she eventually located Fairy Floss Real Estate, which seemed “more legitimate” and where she ultimately also found a house without encountering any scams.
Created by Butterworth in 2009, the site offers a platform for people to find or lease accommodation in Melbourne. The founder says its track record, clear guidelines and moderation protocols make sure it stays “focused on its pure mission to help folks find accommodation”. The service is free and Butterworth, who also founded for-profit rental platform Snug, says he receives no income from administering the page.
Moderators and admins try to keep Facebook as safe as possible from “bad actors” by taking measures such as screening new members, deleting irrelevant ads or posts and quickly addressing complaints and disputes.
He says despite having 343,000 members and 180 daily listing posts, he only averages about one scam report per year.
“If someone does attempt to scam a member, we find members quickly report the dodgy behaviour, warn others and the moderators promptly review and take action to block the user,” Butterworth says.
Both Marantelli and Butterworth argue that Facebook’s owner, Meta, should take more responsibility by improving user verification and preventing scammers from entering and accessing the network.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
“I don’t think that they’re doing enough,” Marantelli said.
“They have probably received more scam accounts than there are people in the world.”
*Shruti is a pseudonym, as the interviewee wished to protect her privacy.