13th Feb 2012 3:47pm | By Editor
Rental scams are becoming far more frequent – make sure you stay aware of them
Words: Clare Vooght
A well-located flat for £400 a month, including bills, is rare in London. So when 29-year-old journalist Soo Kim spotted a place on Craigslist for that price, she went for it.
The landlord seemed eager to show her the property, but first wanted her to prove she could afford the rent, saying unreliable tenants had “duped” him in the past.
He asked her to transfer money to a friend of hers, via Western Union, and to show him the transaction. Believing the man was genuine and trying to protect himself, Kim transferred the money to a close friend’s account and provided the confirmation details, including her friend’s name. But soon, the money was gone – claimed by the scammer, with the use of a fake ID.
“He seemed to be placing himself as the victim,” Kim says.
“Saying that he’s been ‘duped’ in this way before – where tenants claim to be able to pay the rent but are unable to cope after moving in. But, in hindsight, I can see that this was just all
a part of the distraction, a way for him to steer my mind away from any possible doubt.”
This scam is just one of many used to trick people into forking out for a flat they’ll never get to live in, and the problem has been growing since the recession hit. This year, property experts predict rental scams will rise even further, as bogus agents target people looking to rent a place during the Olympics.
It’s impossible to quantify exactly how many rental scams take place across London, because the police class different cases under different crimes – rental scamming could be considered theft or fraud, depending on how it’s done.
Dan Watkins, director of find-a-solicitor service Contact Law, says the Western Union transfer trick is a common one.
“Never transfer any money via Western Union,” he says. “And if the advertiser claims they cannot show you the room, report the ad to the website’s team immediately.”
Tenancy relations officer Ben Reeve-Lewis says fake lettings companies can look professional, and prospective ‘landlords’ can be very persuasive.
“There are no legal requirements for letting agents to be licensed or regulated, so anyone can set themselves up with no knowledge or previous experience at all,” he says. ”Websites can make an outfit look very professional these days but you need to dig a bit if you are going to cover your back – that goes for landlords and tenants.”
So how do you protect yourself? Metropolitan Police spokesman Eddie Townsend says research is paramount.
“Phone the company you’re dealing with – check they’re based in a fixed location and check people’s names,” he says. “Don’t take someone’s word. How do you know they are who they say they are?”
Well-known high street tenancy agents are pricey, but offer extra piece of mind when it comes to landlord vetting – check your agent’s policy on this.
Online lettings agent UPAD advises asking for legally required documents, such as gas safety and energy performance certificates – they might give you the paper trail you need to be confident an advert for a property isn’t a scam. And there’s also no harm in asking the landlord for ID.
A potential scam’s big warning sign is the price, UPAD’s guidelines add. Don’t give in to a deal you know deep down is too good to be true, even if the landlord has a story to back it up – some will use flattery, and say they want to let the flat go cheap to a person they know they can trust. Look at average rental rates for an area if you’re unsure of typical prices.
Viewing the property first is the golden rule, because scams happen most often when you haven’t seen the flat. If you’re suspicious, see if the photos of the place match those on Google Street View, and dig deeper to see if the same pictures are used on other ads with different addresses – that’s a surefire giveaway that someone’s trying to pull off a swindle.
Websites that let you post for free are where you need to be most wary. Most ads are, of course, fine, but ads on sites like Gumtree or Craigslist can easily be posted in high volumes, Watkins says.
“The ads are also unlikely to be filtered or checked on a daily basis, so they can easily slip through the net,” Watkins says.
”Specialist flatshare websites are often safer, as they have filters and teams that manually check ads deemed high-risk.” Trusted sites include Primelocation.co.uk and Rightmove.co.uk.
Go with your gut and don’t be afraid to ask questions – it could save you a lot of money.
• NEXT PAGE: Recognising scams, and what to do if you've been scammed