Safe Property Rental
Fraud involving rental properties has always existed, but the fact that the majority of rentals are now advertised online has increased opportunities for fraudsters, and hence the amount of rental fraud that takes place. Such scams are widely found on websites such as craigslist.com or gumtree.com and can result in serious financial loss. Both potential tenants and landlords can be affected.
Types of rental fraud
- The fraudster poses as an individual renting out his/her own property. Usually it will be listed as available because the owner claims to be living or working elsewhere for various reasons – often charity, missionary or similar work which makes the fraudster appear respectable and authentic. The advertisement or listing may include a photo stolen from websites of genuine estate/rental agents. The fraudster also uses excuses for the property not being available to view. The ‘landlord’ will ask for the first month's rental to be sent by a money transfer service such as Western Union or MoneyGram, promising to then forward the keys via a courier service. Another variant is to ask the prospective tenant to prove he can afford the rent by sending money to a trusted friend or relative, then send the scammer a scanned copy of the receipt, with the false claim that only the named recipient can retrieve the money.
- The fraudster poses as a property management business with a number of properties for rent. This is a more elaborate scam, often involving fake websites and even bank accounts. The advertisement or listing may include a photo stolen from websites of genuine estate/rental agents. Again, the property will not be available to view, but the fraudster uses excuses to disguise that fact.
- A fraudster posing as a landlord sublets a property to several people at once. The prospective tenants all arrive to move in on the same day and the ‘landlord’ disappears without trace. Sometimes, when the person impersonating the landlord is already a tenant, the people who have been duped choose to all live in cramped conditions without the knowledge of the genuine landlord.
- A landlord can become a victim of fraud when a scammer poses as a prospective tenant wanting to rent a property. He will offer to send a cheque (often from a ‘relative’ or business), ask for the cheque to be cashed and some of the money sent to another person by Western Union or MoneyGram, using an excuse such as an accidental overpayment, or funds to pay a moving company. There will be a sense of urgency because the scammer will want the money sent before the cheque is discovered to be fake.
Protect yourself from rental fraud
- Always view a property inside and outside before entering into an agreement or parting with any money. Any genuine landlord or agent will be able to arrange for you to enter the property.
- View the property from the outside at a different time of day from that arranged, for example in the evening to ensure that a ‘vacant’ property is not already occupied.
- Before viewing a property, check to see if the photos in the advertisement match the photos on Google Maps Street View. If you are suspicious, dig deeper to see if the same pictures are used on other listings with different addresses – indicating a fraudulent listing.
- If dealing with an agent online, always call them on the phone or make sure they have a fixed address, and visit their premises.
- Consider using only reputable high street tenancy agents. The possible extra cost is worth extra peace of mind when it comes to integrity and landlord vetting. Alternatively, use specialist rental websites, which may have filters and teams that manually check listings deemed to be high risk.
- Ask for legally required documents such as energy performance and gas safety certificates. They may give you the paper trail you need to be confident an advert for a property is not a scam.
- Ask the landlord for identification.
- Check that the rental price is typical of properties of that type in the area in which you are looking. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Do not forward money via money transfer services such as Western Union and MoneyGram. They are intended only for transactions between yourself and people you know and trust. They can also be picked up virtually anywhere in the world and with a minimum of or no identification – and are almost impossible to trace once the money has been collected.
- Wherever possible, pay deposits and up-front rentals by credit card as this may provide protection against fraud.
- If you are a landlord renting out a property, do not accept payments which involve redirecting part of the rent to another party. Always check references and carry out credit checks on prospective tenants.
- Do not be afraid to ask questions, however foolish you think they may sound.
If you think you have been a victim of rental fraud:
Report it to the police.