Singapore man pleads guilty in SGD383,000 rental scam that cheated victims from 12 countries

Gibson Zeng Xianfu, a former sales executive at Singapore Housing Company, pleaded guilty yesterday to scamming at least 62 victims from 12 countries, fleecing them of SGD383,000 in total in the name of giving them rental accommodation in Singapore.

The scam mainly targeted students and long-stay visitors who looked for a place to rent in Singapore through the Airbnb platform. Representative photo courtesy: Twitter/@shilpa_tweetz

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Wong Shiau Yin said that Zeng made illegal use of photographs that he took during his stint at the Singapore Housing Company, an organisation specialising in rental accommodation. He worked there from 2018 to 2020, and he took the photos in order to share them with clients who were interested in property rentals in Singapore.

Zeng quit that housing company, but then created an Airbnb profile, where he used the photos taken earlier as an employee. He had no authority to do so, and had no rights to advertise those properties as a landlord. However, Airbnb seemed oblivious to this scam.

The people he cheated included students from Europe looking for a place in Singapore; visitors from Western countries looking for long-stay accommodation in Singapore; and even a Singapore resident. In each case, the prospective tenant would be asked to pay a deposit — this usually ran into thousands of dollars — but just before their arrival in Singapore, Zeng would tell them that the unit they had paid for was unavailable, and that they would get the unit either on another date or a refund. Then, the victims would get neither.

In some cases, such as the case of a French exchange student, they would actually arrive in Singapore only to find that they had no place to stay. In another case, like that of a German couple, they would be refunded only a small fraction of the money paid. The Singapore resident who rented a unit from Zeng, went to that address on the agreed upon date and found that it was already taken, and that the occupant had no idea anyone was coming. He then tried contacting Zeng, but had no success.

The rental contracts that Zeng made his victims sign were all fake, since he had no rights whatsoever to these properties that he advertised. But the contract made the victims feel, at least initially, that regulations were being met.

His activities led to Zeng being arrested by Singapore Police, but he was then out on bail and carried on with the scam. The DPP said in court, “The offences were committed at a time when competition for rental units in the market was high due to limited supply and high demand.” His sentencing is expected on July 26, and the punishment could be a 10-year jail term, or a fine, or both.