Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rental-scam cheat conned 127 people

PAYBACK time has come in the form of a jail term for a serial rental con artist.

The ruse of Eric Heng Jit Siang was to pose as the owner of a property seeking to rent it out, milking the tenant of a deposit on the rent, and then pulling a disappearing act.

Using both landed properties and flats he had rented, the 33-year-old conned 127 people, mainly foreigners and permanent residents, out of more than $242,500 in rental deposits between last April and January.

For doing this, he was yesterday put behind bars for six years and three months.

He pleaded guilty to 40 counts of deception and three of other crimes.

The court heard that he rented 10 properties across the island, got the keys to them and then placed advertisements in newspapers and train stations seeking tenants.

When people responded to his advertisements, he posed as the owner of these properties and arranged to show them the units.

When the tenancy agreement was signed - and each unit was 'rented' out to more than one house-hunter - he collected money from each of them as a deposit on the rental or the utility bill.

The victims found out that they had been taken for a ride only when they realised on moving day that they were not the only ones who had 'rented' the place.

This was Heng's cue to make himself scarce.

Mr Amit Gurung, a 26-year-old graduate student at a private school, told The Straits Times yesterday that he paid Heng $2,800 to rent a flat in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 last August.

Everything seemed plausible then. The Nepalese said: 'He introduced me to his wife and daughter. He said he wanted to rent out the flat because they were going to stay with his mother as she was ill.'

Three weeks later, as he was cleaning the unit before moving in, he had visits by no fewer than six people, all claiming to have rented the flat from Heng. They had the keys too.

Unable to reach Heng on his cellphone, Mr Gurung went to the police.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Andre Moses Tan pushed for a deterrent sentence, saying the offences were 'deliberate' and not committed in 'a moment of folly'.

In sentencing, District Judge Eddy Tham reprimanded Heng: 'What you have done is despicable. It has caused a lot of anxieties to these people.'

Heng, jobless at the time of his offences, was also fined $600 for driving without a valid driving licence.

He was arrested in February after having been on the run since last year.

None of the victims has got his money back. Mr Gurung said he is not banking on it.

No official data on rental scams exists, but the Consumers Association of Singapore said it has handled a steadily rising number of cases involving rental disputes, including misleading claims or misrepresentation.

The figures were 123 in 2006, 177 in 2007 and 231 last year. There have been 57 cases so far this year.

Last December, a Malaysian couple and a Japanese expatriate apparently lost $10,300 in all to a bogus property manager-cum-landlord of a terrace house in Serangoon.

Two agents from property agency ERA were apparently also duped by the man. It is not known whether he is still in hiding.

Source: Straits Times, 9 April 2009

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