Metro 44

Richard Herring: Being the victim of a fraudster was humiliating

Friday 14 Dec 2012

Richard Herring offers a cautionary tale of love and flat-letting – with a satisfactory ending.

Last week’s column about identity theft reminded me of one of the only other times I’ve been a victim of crime. Back in the early 1990s, I was a struggling and poverty stricken young comedian. I’d been with my girlfriend for about six months and it felt like the real thing, so we’d taken the grown-up step of moving in together. I quickly found a flat that was a bit of a bargain. Not so much of a bargain as to make me suspicious, just enough of a bargain for me to do all I could to secure it before someone else did.

I met the estate agent at the property. There was no reason to suspect him: he had the keys and I’d seen him talking to the landlord. After my offer had been accepted, he rang a couple of times, asking things like: ‘Queen or king-sized bed?’ It was totally irrelevant to the con. He was enjoying himself.

I reasoned that this couldn’t be a fraud because I had his firm’s phone number and if I rang and he wasn’t in, a receptionist would take a message. I met him at his office to sign the contract. I knew where he worked. He couldn’t just run off with the cash that he’d insisted upon for the deposit. That was a little bit odd but he knew that as a tenant trying to secure a desirable flat, I’d do anything to prove that I was reliable. My gut told me something was wrong but my brain was satisfied. Stupid brain.

I went to the flat to meet the estate agent and pick up the keys but he didn’t show up. Instead, eight other prospective tenants appeared on the doorstep. This was the coup de grace. I wonder if he drove by so he could witness the chaos he had wrought. Like me, these chumps were £1,000 poorer and had nowhere to live. It was a sickeningly cruel con against the people who could least afford it.

I felt humiliated and stupid. Of course, he had paid for an answering service and had rented his office by the hour. He was untraceable.

Totally broke, I had no choice but to move into my girlfriend’s parents’ house. I was lucky to have that option but it put a strain on the relationship and, a few months later, we broke up. Perhaps the conman did us a favour, perhaps our love was doomed anyway, but we never got the chance to find that out. Who knows what our future might have been? Have you seen the film Sliding Doors? Awful isn’t it. Total crap.

Incredibly, and rather delightfully, the crook was apprehended at his next attempt. He’d been showing some women round another flat while the landlord was there but had had to pop out to feed the parking meter. The landlord liked the prospective tenants and, trying to avoid the agency fees, offered them the property on the sly. They were confused: it had already been agreed that they were moving in. The conman was caught out because someone tried to con him. Nice.

He was convicted and, remarkably, we got our money back, just before he was declared bankrupt. He’d needed the cash for his own mortgage and to pay off his wife’s credit card. I’d have pitied him if I didn’t hate him so much. Perhaps he enjoyed wrecking lives, perhaps he had no empathy for anyone but himself. But be wary of the sweet deal and trust your gut. There are some horrible people out there.

See Richard’s reworking of his hit show, Talking Cock: The Second Coming, on his nationwide tour.