As with many industries that have predominantly moved online, the rental sector has seen a rise in scams and attempted fraud, heightened by the pandemic. Rental fraud is defined by Action Fraud as a type of advance fee fraud, where applicant tenants are tricked into paying an upfront fee for a rental property that turns out not to be genuine. Either the property doesn’t exist, has already been rented out, or the scammer has no right to be acting on behalf of the property. This type of scam has two major fallouts. Not only does the victim lose their upfront fee, but can also be left without accommodation.
To help you avoid the potential heartbreak of putting a deposit down on a fake property, we’ve put together a short guide of common rental scams and how to avoid them.
The ‘Local Community Groups’ Landlord Scam
Increasingly, private landlords have been advertising their properties on local community groups on sites such as Facebook. For property hunters keen to live in a specific area, this can appear a good way to connect with local rental opportunities, especially given the high competition between tenants on the property portals and lettings agent websites.
Unfortunately, the lack of regulation to post in these groups makes it difficult to distinguish between a genuine landlord and a scammer. One recent scam that we were made aware of was a lady advertising rental opportunities for properties that were listed for sale by verified estate agents. The scammer would inform rental applicants that the home seller would be interested in renting the property instead of selling, but all applications should go through the scammer rather than the official estate agent.
The scammer had no affiliation or right to be acting on behalf of the property, and would have disappeared upon receiving the rental deposit. This scam can be dismantled by requesting to see the property first. As the scammer has no affiliation with the property, they will not be able to accommodate your request to be shown round.
The Virtual Tour and Videos Scam
A scam that was most prominent over the lockdown, the virtual tour and video scam plays upon victims who are unable to view a property in person. Virtual tours are a fantastic online tool that modern estate agents such as ourselves use to help immerse property viewers in a home, from the comfort of their sofa. When in-person viewings were restricted over lockdown, virtual tours became a prevalent way for genuine agents to market properties.
However, the scammers quickly took note and got to work with their devious illegal schemes. Often, the scammers would pirate the videos created by genuine agents, and pass them off as their own. When the applicant would ask for more details about the property, they would be sent the pirated recordings. For would-be tenants who, for whatever reason, are unable to view the property in person, these recordings could be convincing.
Whilst the videos may appear genuine and professional, the scammer themselves has no affiliation with the property. To try to avoid this scam, if you can’t view the property in person, ask for a live video call with the agent walking around the property, showing you around. Genuine agents will happily accommodate your request, yet the scammers will again be left powerless.
The Fake Property / Landlord Scam
This scam is particularly dangerous, and much harder to spot, as it sometimes goes beyond simply advertising a property. Instead, the scammer will show tenants around an empty property that they have access to. They could have gained access to this property via a short-term rent on a site such as AirBnB. Whilst the scammer could show you round the property, they have no right to rent out the property, and will disappear with your money.
As most scams can be avoided by asking to be shown round a property, this sophisticated scam can go unnoticed until it is too late.
This is why it is always vital to check the landlord or letting agent is fully vetted and genuine. To check if a landlord is genuine, ensure they are a member of the National Landlords Association. For Letting Agents, check for memberships of schemes such as The Property Ombudsman and the Money Shield Client Money Protection initiative. Whilst genuine agents such as ourselves proudly display our membership and certifications on our website, for full peace of mind you can search the scheme’s own website to check that the agent you are dealing with is who they say they are.
Hidden Fees and Illegal Charges
Once you move into your new rental property, unfortunately this isn’t a sign that you are free from potentially being scammed. Unscrupulous and dodgy landlords might have genuine properties to let, but their approach to fees and charges is where they show their true colours. Inflated fees for small damage and repairs are common, as well as hidden fees buried deep in tenancy agreements.
Always ensure to read the tenancy agreement carefully, as once you sign it you are agreeing to pay. Similarly, ensure you agree fully with the Inventory Check before agreeing and signing to avoid any unsavoury charges at the end of your tenancy.
We are always up-front and transparent with our letting fees, which you can find easily on our website.
Top things to look out for:
- The agent / landlord being too pushy with asking for money up front. Whilst the market does move quickly and holding deposits are used by genuine agents to secure the property, you should never feel pressured into transferring large sums of money.
- Free listings on unverified websites. Social Media networks and free selling sites are great for finding rental opportunities, but these sites do not vet the properties themselves so are more vulnerable to hosting scammers. If you do find a property on one of these sites, be extra vigilant and do your own research into the accreditations and validity of who you are dealing with.
- Dodgy pictures and wording. Professional letting agents and landlords pride themselves on high quality property photography and descriptions. Be wary of any pictures / videos that are rushed or low quality, as well as those that appear to have been stolen from elsewhere, such as screenshots. Poorly worded ads may be a telltale sign of a foreign scammer.
It is a sad reality of modern property hunting that scammers do exist out there, trying to prise your hard earned cash out of your pocket. By staying vigilant and conducting your own research, you can avoid the vast majority of the modern scams which are built upon making a quick buck off of a desperate applicant. The safest way to rent remains through a professional, vetted lettings agent who is a member of nationally recognized schemes and accreditations. If you think you have been the victim of rental fraud, please contact Action Fraud.