The risks of renting rooms online in KathmanduInternet might have made hunt for a rental room easier, but it has also helped fraudsters profit off those in need.
When Suvekshya Giri left her hometown a few months ago, she was excited about a new job and independent life in Kathmandu. But that excitement didn’t last long. Rather, it quickly turned into frustration, given the ordeals she had to undergo to find a room to rent. Giri was looking for an apartment with a bedroom and a kitchen. She initially got in touch with people she knew in Kathmandu and went door-to-door asking for it. But even after a long and frantic search, she still didn’t find the apartment that suited her needs.
“Finding rooms in Kathmandu is full of hassles—a real headache,” said Giri, a 24-year-old from Pokhara who now works and lives in Kathmandu.
After her door-to-door campaign didn’t yield the desired result, she turned to marketplaces online, to Hamrobazar and Facebook.
However, frauds online duped her, adding to her woes.
“Seeing so many rooms online rekindled my hopes and within a few minutes, I saw a room listing that met my needs,” Giri said. “It was affordable and at the exact location I wanted. I called the number given in the post. They received it on the first ring and asked me to fill up an online form and also said that they would charge Rs500 before providing service. I desperately needed a place to live, so I transferred the amount to their bank account and submitted the form without a second thought.”
What happened thereafter was something Giri had never expected. “Soon after I paid the money and called them, they blocked my phone number and WhatsApp account,” Giri said. “I got duped so easily.”
Thousands of people from all walks of life across the country come to Kathmandu Valley in search of opportunities, and one of the many things they have to struggle with initially is finding a room to rent.
The internet has made many things more accessible. People no longer have to roam around the streets of Kathmandu to find rooms. One can launch a search from anywhere through the internet. The only downside is it is also full of fraudsters, who know that searching for rooms in Kathmandu is an arduous task. Rental pages receive a lot of attention as having a place to call their own is one of the primary needs of people. Frauds take advantage of that, committing petty crimes, at the expense of wide-eyed newcomers like Giri.
Take Surendra Karki, an engineer, for another example. When he needed a room to rent, he checked all the possible sites like Facebook and Google. Karki came across a real estate agent, who asked him to fill up an online form and deposit Rs500. “The online form looked genuine, and the process systematic,” Karki said. He did as he was told. But he never heard back, his repeated calls and texts ignored. An all too familiar tactic.
“After they stopped responding, I realised it was a scam,” Karki added. “Later, I knew it wasn’t just me.”
Cyber security experts say that online frauds and scams are increasing by the day in Kathmandu due to the easy accessibility of the internet.
“On one hand, the internet has simplified our work—we no longer have to go door-to-door searching for rooms,” said Naresh Lamgade, founder and CEO of Cynical Technology, a Kathmandu-based cyber security startup. “But, on the other hand, it has brought numerous risks, including renting scams, SMS frauds, OTP [one-time password] code fraud and lottery scams.”
But neither Giri nor Karki reported the matter to the police. Karki said that he didn’t report thinking that the police wouldn’t take a petty matter like the one he faced seriously.
“That incident outraged me, and I wanted to take it to the police immediately,” Karki said. “I have been to the police office many times to report such petty crimes before but I have never got satisfactory results. Thinking about all the hassles while reporting a case, I gave up on the idea.”
Only a few of these scams get reported to the police, who say that it is important to let the police know about them, even if the crimes are minor.
“Such petty crimes are rampant across the country and in our surroundings but many go unreported,” said Superintendent of Police Dinesh Raj Mainali, spokesperson for the Kathmandu District Police Range. “People only report big crimes. Matters will come to a head and these petty incidents may also lead to heinous crimes if timely actions are not taken.”
Such fraudulent activities are criminalised and prosecuted under Chapter 21 of the National Penal (Code) Act, 2017. In 2076, one person was arrested for charging money to find rooms and flats in Kathmandu. The matter came to light after 10 people filed a complaint against the fraudster.
“If more and more people reported such incidents, it would help us to locate the frauds and investigate the nature of the crime, thereby preventing others from being victims,” Mainali said.
Hamrobazar, however, has received numerous complaints about such scams, according to staffers.
According to a Hamrobazar employee, when many people reported that some real estate listers came out as frauds, they were banned from the site. Moreover, the site also mandated all the listers to state whether they charge a service fee for room-seeking.
“We can’t do anything other than block them so that they don’t use the Hamrobazar platform anymore,” the staff said.
Consumer rights experts stress the need for government intervention to control such scams.
The government and the existing laws do not recognise room finder pages on social media and other sites, said Bishnu Prasad Timilsina, general secretary of the Forum of Consumer Rights-Nepal. “Scammers are taking advantage of that loophole, and as a result, consumers are suffering,” he said. “The government should introduce e-commerce laws to control online scams.”
Even though the government prepared the e-commerce bill draft nearly two years ago, it is yet to be passed as law.
Lamgade, the cyber security expert, said all online marketplaces may not be authentic, so visitors should be cautious before using their service.
“There will be enough red flags waving in our faces and the tell-tale signs all too visible to indicate that the rooms on offer are too good to be true,” Lamgade said. “We should be able to recognise them. They can outsmart us with fake online forms. So, as concerned citizens, we should avoid such agents and look for the genuine ones.”
Karki thinks the police need to create a favourable environment to address such petty frauds. As of today, the online forms remain active, inviting room seekers to apply, Karki said.
“Even if only a few people report it, police should thoroughly investigate this matter because they are not just looting a single person,” he said. “Ask any person who comes to Kathmandu to make a living, and they will have a similar story to tell.”