"We've had a phonecall from Church Lane claiming they have intruders on the property; is anyone free to go take a look?" the CAD operator said, and followed up with a quick outline of the incident and the address.
"Show 26." I transmitted, and downed the last sip of my bottle of Lucozade, lobbed it into a rubbish bin, and triumphantly exclaimed "Yessss, I've still got it" when I actually succeeded in hitting said rubbish bin. I never was much of a basketball player.
"Received," came the reply through my radio. "On the hurry up, please."
"Received, on my way, ETA 3 minutes"
I was single crewed, but there is never a shortage of people leaping on the chance of dealing with burglaries in progress, so it didn't come as a particular surprise to me when I heard three other units putting up for the call as well. Excellent. At least I wasn't going to have to wrestle with a burglar all by myself.
My ETA of 3 minutes turned out to be a gross overestimation; I had misremembered the direction the numbering went on Church Lane, and so when I turned into the street, number 398 was just in front of me -- I thought I had to drive all the way up the heavily speed-humped road, but it appeared that wasn't the case after all.
"Showtime for 26", I transmitted -- my signal to the CAD operator that they can mark me as being on location (technically, "show time of arrival" is the correct radio protocol, but TOA or "Show Time", usually slurred into "Showtime", works just as well).
The space right outside the house was taken up by an incredibly unfortunately parked moving van, and I left my Panda half on the pavement -- there wasn't much of a parking space -- with the red flashers on. Yanking the hand brake on, I was eyeing the house as I climbed out of the car.
On the little front porch of 398, two pairs of people were in some sort of glacial stand-off. I walked up to them.
"Hey, did you call police?" I asked.
"I did." A young man said, reaching out his hand to shake mine. I did a 'dynamic risk assessment', as the Met loves to call it, and decided that he was probably not going to grab me with the intent of beating me up, so I took his hand firmly.
"So you're George?"
"Yeah. This is my wife Suzanna." The man said, indicating a short woman standing in her mid-20s standing next to him.
"Howdyoudo." She said quietly.
"So, what's going on? Is there a burglar?"
"Burglar?" George said. "No, no. I didn't mean to give that impression. It's just that... There was someone in our house." He nodded at the other pair of people.
"May I...?" the other man said.
"And you are?"
"My name's Ashley", he said, and stuck out his hand.
"He's the one I called about," George said.
"He's the burglar?" I asked, and looked Ashley up and down. He looked... nothing like a burglar.
"Well, it's a little complicated," Ashley said.
"The thing is... We've only lived in this house for a few days, we only just moved in," Ashley started. He waved vaguely at the enormous moving van not ten feet away from us. "And now, George here says that he has rented the place, and he's obviously here, ready to move in."
"George?" I asked, looking over at the bright ginger man leaned against the railing next to the door.
"We saw the house a while back, and were offered a great deal on it. So we decided to rent the place on the spot!" he replied.
"Wait, so you both rented this house?" I said.
"Yes," both George and Ashley said in perfect unison.
"And you both signed a tenancy agreement?"
As if rehearsed, they repeated their "yes" choir, and both produced a small stack of stapled A4 paper, both titled "Shorthold Tenancy Agreement." That was where the similarities ended.
"Could I have a look?" I asked, and they both handed over their documents.
Suddenly, I remembered something, and reached for my radio.
"Cancel all units running to Church Lane, it's not a burglary, seems to be a contract dispute," I said. "Could I get a skipper over here, though?" I added.
"Yes yes," came the familiar voice of seventy-one. "How quickly do you need me?"
"How long are you going to be?"
"Yeah, that's fine, thanks."
"On the hurry-up?"
"Negative", I said -- there was no point in rushing the skipper to the location on sirens and disco lights, I just wanted someone there for a bit of moral support; for all intents and purposes, this wasn't a criminal matter, but simply a case of a civil dispute. I decided to stick around to ensure it stayed civil, though.
"Received, out," seventy-one said, and presumably went back to his lunch in a greasy spoon somewhere.
I took a look at the two tenancy agreements. They both looked rather official, and they were both definitely for the same address; but both of them were from different companies, signed by different people, only a couple of days apart.
"Okay, so talk me through this one," I said. "George?"
"Ok, we met up with the agency three weeks ago, before the previous tenants moved out. We saw the place, liked it, and signed the contract, but weren't going to move in until the end of the month."
"So," I said, doing a quick calculation in my head. "You saw the place around the 10th?"
"And then you signed the paperwork on the 26th?"
"I think so," George replied, before looking at the agreement in my hand. "Yes, it must have been the 26th."
"And then you were to move in...?"
"Today. The 31st."
"Right. But when you got here, Ashley was already living in the house?"
"So, what about you guys?" I asked, turning to Ashley.
"We saw the place on the 25th; we were showed around by the owner of the house. He was a lovely guy; really friendly. He showed us around, and said that he was going to go travelling for a year, so he decided to rent the place out."
"Right. And then what happened?"
"Well, we loved it, the location is great for the tube and that. So we said we wanted it, and he wanted to do a credit check on us."
"Well, Amy is pregnant, and hasn't been working for a while, and I've had some bad credit in the past."
"So I figured we might not pass a credit check. I don't really know how these things work, you see. So I asked him whether we could come to another arrangement."
"And you did?"
"Yeah. He said he would take a three month deposit and three months worth of rent up front, and we'd be good to move in, without having to get a formal credit check."
"And you paid him?"
"We went to the bank, and took the money out in cash. He said it would be easier than doing bank transfers and all that."
"So... The agreement here says you're paying £850 per month for this place?"
"And he wanted you to pay..." I tried to do the math in my head, but failed.
"And then what happened?"
"We signed the paperwork, we handed over the money, he gave us a receipt, and he said we could move in the next day if we wanted. So we did."
"And he gave you a set of keys?"
"Uh-huh." Ashley said. "Two, actually."
I scratched my head briefly.
"George, did you call the management company?"
"Yeah." George said
"They are on their way now," he said.
"Guys, this is all a bit much," Ashley said. "Could we go inside? I'll brew us a couple of cups of tea whilst we figure stuff out?"
It was unanimously decided that cups of tea were certainly in order, and the quartet of confused-looking mix of would-be-tenants led the way into 'their' house, where Ashley flicked the kettle on, and Amy darted over to the stereo to turn off the Tori Amos album that had been playing on the stereo.
"Sorry," she shrugged and blushed, as if she had just turned off a video of some unspeakably-embarrassing pornography playing on a projector screen in her living room. Which I have seen people do, actually, but they weren't particularly ashamed about it. It seemed like a slightly extreme reaction just to a bit of Choirgirl Hotel.
As Ashley was pouring the cups of tea, the doorbell rang, and it appeared to be the letting agent.
"Hi, I came as soon as I could," he said. "Oh! I see the police are involved. Good. I'm really sorry about all of this."
I took his hand.
"I'm Matt", I said.
"William", he replied. "Or Will."
"What's going on here, Will?"
"I don't know!" he exclaimed. "I am letting this flat on behalf of the owner. He lives in Mauritius. I have been letting this place for the best part of a decade, and I really don't know what's going on."
"Have you met the owner?"
"Of course, he's here every six months or so."
"What does he look like?"
"Oh. He's pretty unique. He's Malaysian, but freakishly tall for an Asian chap. Lovely fellow. Grew up here, apparently, his English is absolutely perfect," William the lettings agent said, before he remembered something, with a huge grin and a glint in his eyes "Well, insofar as you can claim a Scouse accent is perfect English."
"Don't like scousers?"
"I'm a Manchester City fan," he said with a shrug, and lifted one of his shirt sleeves up, revealing a Man City logo tattoo.
I started laughing, and the four renters joined in. We all had a couple of sips of tea.
"So Ashley, the owner who let you this place -- was he a tall Malaysian man with a Liverpudlean accent?"
"No," Ashley said, shaking his head, with a mildly confused look on his face.
"Just out of curiosity," said William the property agent. "What did the 'owner' look like?"
"Short, squat fellow," Ashley said. "Black guy, well dressed, extremely well spoken. He sounded... posh, even."
"Oh..." said Will. "What was his name?"
"He said it was Kesuma." Ashley said.
"That's the name of the man who owns this house," Will replied. "But he is certainly not a short guy. It's funny you should say he speaks with a posh accent, though."
"Did he show you any ID?" I asked.
Ashley shook his head.
"So you gave five grand to someone without really knowing who they were?"
"He had keys to the flat..." Ashley said by way of an explanation.
"How were you going to pay the rent?"
"That's the weird thing. He said that he had just switched banks, and didn't have his new sort code and account number yet. In fact, that was why I couldn't pay him the deposit by just doing an internet transfer."
"So how were you going to continue paying rent?"
"He said he would call me."
"Did he leave a number?"
"Yeah, but I tried calling it earlier, and it goes straight to voicemail."
I sighed involuntarily. I had a feeling I knew where this particular case was going to go.
"Are you sure that the owner is who he says he is?" I asked Will.
"Of course. I have a photocopy of his passport just here. In fact, I brought a copy, along with the contract he signed stating that we are the lettings and management agency for this house."
"And there's not anyone else at your office who might have shown Ashley the house?"
"No; we're a very small family lettings agency, I do all the viewings myself. The only other people working at Acme Lettings are the handyman, our office manager Mary, and a lady who comes in to do our bookkeeping."
"Any idea who the 'owner' might have been?"
"Actually, the description does ring a bell. We had a tenant in this flat a while ago. He fits the description."
"Yes, I remember now. Robin? Roger? Rodrick? His name was something like that. He was a bit of a sly one; always felt as if he was trying to trick me. He did speak with a very well-educated tone of voice."
"So what does this mean for us?" Ashley said, placing a hand on his girlfriend's.
"Well, as far as I can see, it looks as if you may have been a victim of fraud: It does look as if George has the right to live here, even though you guys moved in first."
"But we paid a deposit?" Ashley asked.
"Oh..." Ashley said. The change in his face was enormous, as he finally realised what had, and what was going to, happen.
"I'm really sorry," I said. "But you guys are going to have to pack up again and leave. As far as I can tell, George and Suzanna here are the legal residents of this house."
Ashley sank back against the back of the sofa like a sack of slowly deflating potatoes.
George and Suzanna exchanged a glance, and Suzanna nodded.
"You know what," George said, "We'll take the moving van and come back the day after tomorrow. Leave you guys a bit of time and space to get your ducks in a row."
"I can't..." Ashley said, now looking even more like a recently beaten puppy than before. "This didn't... I haven't... That was all the money we had saved up."
I picked up my pocketbook and started taking down some details. Or, at least, I pretended to, whilst I collected myself again. There was something about Ashley's completely and helplessly despondent look that made my eyes tear up -- the look of shock and realisation that not only did he not get to live in the house they had found, he was also going to have to deal with finding a new one, and having lost all of his savings to a lowlife of a con artist.
"Are you OK with this as a solution?" I asked, turning to George. "Ashley and Amy leave the flat in the next 48 hours, and you guys can move in after?"
"Fine by us," Suzanna replied, shaking her head. "I can't believe this has happened."
"Yes, by all means," George said. "I'd even be happy to help you guys move, if you need an extra pair of hands," he added, looking at Amy's extremely-pregnant stomach.
"And so will I," Will said, standing up from the sofa, "And I am happy with this solution too, as long as George and Suzanna are OK with it."
Suzanna, in reply, got up from the sofa, and walked over to Amy, giving her a hug.
"I'm so, so, so sorry," she repeated over and over again. For a moment I was afraid that Suzanna was going to offer to not take the house, and to let Amy and Ashley live there instead.
I spent the rest of the shift doing the primary investigation on how the hell Ashley and Amy had been so thoroughly defrauded, but the case stayed with me: Sure, it may have been a little bit naive to just hand over five grand of your hard-earned, but at the same time, I could totally have seen myself falling for the same con trick. Going so far as to actually have a shorthold tenancy agreement drawn up in order to defraud someone is... Evil, of course, but also rather ingenious.
Many months later, I found myself testifying in court; the Metropolitan Police fraud team had found the con artist, and it had indeed turned out to be the previous tenant the management agent had remembered. It seems that he had a spare key for the house, even several years later, and when he spotted that the house had come back on the market, he had called the letting agent. The Agent told him house was already let. When the current tenants moved out, he then downloaded and printed a standard tenancy agreement, and placed an advertisement on a famous London classifieds website, before choosing his mark. From the website, we learned that several other people had been to see the property, and when our fraud squad managed to track them down, it turned out that they had been given the exact same spiel: leaving the country, need to take the deposit in cash because the bank account isn't up and running yet... And so on.
Amy and Ashley got most of their savings back -- nearly nine months after they had been defrauded in the first place -- and the con artist ended up in prison for what I can't help but think was a laughably short period of time.
It just goes to show, that when it comes to con artists, you really do have to keep your wits about you. They are very good at what they do
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.