Flashback August 2017: HDC managing director Brent Lyons, forefront, guides then Housing Minister Randall Mitchell, centre and HDC chairman Newman George during a tour of the Our River Runs Through It Housing Development in Arima.

Online fraudsters have managed to fleece desperate Housing Development Corporation (HDC) applicants of $48,000 in the last month.

This is the latest development in a public housing scam the HDC recently unearthed.

Yesterday, the HDC reminded citizens that all transactions/payments related to the allocation of housing units are conducted at its offices and they will never sanction payments or transfers to personal accounts.

The warning came after scores of HDC applicants desperately seeking to secure subsidised homes were conned of their hard-earned cash in the last few weeks by fraudsters. In a release, the HDC said in some cases, “the victims were actually defrauded of tens of thousands of dollars.”

Contacted on the issue, HDC managing director Brent Lyons told Guardian Media he was very concerned housing applicants were being ripped off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am particularly concerned about people losing their hard-earned money to fraud. It’s over ten reported cases we have had in terms of people who actually called us to complain…and then there were reports of people whose friends called us who did not feel comfortable with what happened,” Lyons said in a telephone interview.

The HDC has over 100,000 applicants waiting in line for public housing.

Lyons said one has to keep in mind the person who handed over the cash but noted the persons who accepted the money have also committed a crime.

“You are paying to defraud the system.”

He said HDC’s security department had received complaints from “dozens” of applicants who were swindled in the last four weeks.

“We are again hearing a number of people complaining or making reports that somebody has attempted to defraud them or they have been contacted to pay some money somewhere.”

So far, the HDC has received reports of applicants handing over approximately $48,000 in cash to con artists.

In once instance, Lyons said one applicant paid $18,000 in cash to a fraudster, a case which is now the subject of a TTPS Fraud Squad investigation.

Lyons said the fraudsters had gone about planning an elaborate scam as well. He said they have been taking photos of single units, townhouses and apartments from the HDC’s website, most of which are in advanced stages of construction and using them to convince the unsuspecting applicants that their files were being processed.

“They have also been taking photographs of housing developments themselves, which they have been showing the applicants. What they would do….they would look at our Facebook page and social media and look for people who say they applied to HDC for a home and is awaiting a response. These people who have been waiting for a house are contacted via Facebook or Instagram by the fraudsters, who pretend to be an HDC employee asking them to make a deposit or down payment towards their new home,” he said.

“They tell you they could help in moving the process along if you pay money. I am not saying people are gullible. People want housing. If they get a call it lifts your hopes and the fraudsters try to give you something to hold on to make it sound legitimate.”

He said the scammers had found a creative way to swindle applicants by going online.

The HDC has photos of 20 housing sites on its website and social media pages. The fraudsters have showed bonafide applicants they approached photographs of the developments at Real Spring in Valsayn, Eden Gardens in Freeport and a private/public partnership project in Central.

Asked if the fraudsters could possibly be collaborating with HDC employees in the scam, Lyons said they had no evidence applicants’ personal information was being leaked to fraudsters on the outside.

“There are cases where people are purporting to be from the HDC … and it happens all the time. We are saying nobody from the HDC will call you to meet them outside to conduct a transaction or payment. And if that happens don’t follow that… come into our head office.

“If anybody contacts you to do anything other than that, know it is a fraudulent of suspect transaction. That is is not how the HDC is run. We have our systems really locked tight. So there is no further investigation to be launched.”

This is not the first time HDC applicants have been targeted by scammers. In 2018, Lyons said the HDC had launched a “Scammers’ Alert” campaign to treat with such fraud. Last year, an HDC employee was also accused of fraudulently giving a house to a tenant living in the Greenvale Park development in La Horquetta. The fraud was only uncovered when ministry officials were screening residents to assist them following severe flooding in the community.

Lyons said with an increase in fraud again, they may have to return to the education campaign.

“Don’t let these fraudsters make you part with your hard-earned money,” Lyons urged.