The Rental Rip-Off

Jun 10th, 2008 | By | Category: Readers Contributions

Moving house is stressful enough without the added pitfall of fraud artists, we warn of the latest rental scam to hit the capital.

 

A new type of identity fraud has emerged that targets some of the poorest members of the housing market – potential rental tenants.

 

Private lettings are a major part of the rental market as they cut out excessive agent fees and can be a great way of securing a flat at a reasonable cost but you must remain vigilant to avoid falling foul of scam artists.

 

While searching one of the UK’s most popular property websites for a flat in London, www.gumtree.com, which has 6.5 million visitors per month, we came across a scam that preys on tenants and tries to get them to part with vital personal information by gaining their trust.

 

Property websites are one of the most commonly used resources for private lettings. Owners can advertise houses and flats for rent and tenants can search for suitable properties and contact the owners directly. While this does cut out the middleman, namely the estate agent, it does leave tenants in a vulnerable position, particularly when it comes to securing a flat and paying a deposit, as they do not have the security of the estate agent, who acts as a holding agent. 

 

This particular scam works like this. An advert will appear on a property search, usually in a popular area where rental properties are snapped up quickly. The property is often advertised at a slightly below average price and contains photos of an attractive property. It all seems too good to be true, and unfortunately it probably is; there is no flat, it is just the first step in trying to get bank and address details from unsuspecting tenants.

 

We contacted one of the supposed owners to arrange a viewing for an advertised flat. The ‘owner’ got back to us with a story of how he was currently in Liverpool looking after a sick relative so he needed to be sure we could afford the flat and were serious about renting. He described how he had been let down by young professionals in the past and made a wasted round trip from Liverpool. Because of this he said, “I also require you to email me more information and details about yourself”. This was all before a viewing had even been organised.

 

A later email came up with a suggestion of how we could prove that we could afford the flat, again before a viewing had been organised. It read: “My colleague suggested you go to any Western Union money transfer and send one month’s rent plus deposit of £600 in your name to your partner’s name at your present address. Scan and send the transfer receipt via email to me for confirmation”, he continued, “You are in custody of your money all I need is to see that you have the cash to pay me and I will refund the transfer charges back to you. If you can get the western union done today then we can meet for viewing in the evening from 6pm”.

 

When we challenged the ‘owner’ about this arrangement and suggested that it left us open to fraud the rail went cold.

 

In one week we uncovered four separate scams working in this way. Each time there was some heartfelt story explaining why the ‘owner’ could not arrange for a viewing before obtaining personal information.

 

Any genuine landlord would not expect a tenant to part with any cash or personal information before they had even seen the property in question. Unfortunately, those prone to falling victim to this crime are those desperate to secure a property quickly and for a cheaper price.

 

Chee Ho Wan from Gumtree offers this advice: “We strongly encourage our users to use common sense and apply the same rules online as they would offline.  Meet prospective landlords face-to-face and don’t provide bank details in response to a rental posting. As soon as ads of this nature are brought to our attention we take measures to ban these users from the site.”

 

For more advice on staying safe go to www.gumtree.com/help/stay_safe

 

Report by Sally Coffey

 

 

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