Rental scam warning signs

Tenants need to be constantly aware of all the things that might not "add up" when they look for a property to rent, says Gail Cawood, rental manager for Knight Frank Residential SA.

There are numerous things that need to be remembered when looking for a rental property, especially when one is going through free online advertising sites, where there are often properties advertised with very little information about the physical location of the person advertising or the property itself, she said.

The types of scams being run at the moment are:

- Where the property does not actually exist in the form that it is being advertised online.

This is where the scam artist has taken photos from someone else's website or advert and reuses them as their own. They make up an address and a rental and when potential tenants respond (usually only their email address is given), they usually say they are out of town or the country and have to arrange for keys to be given to the tenant for viewing.

They then ask for a security deposit in order to get the keys.

 - Another possible scenario is where the property and possibility of renting it does exist but the scam artist "steals" the advert and places it with their own contact details.

Any respondents will be able to drive past the property or look for it on a map and think that it is fine. They might then apply and sign a lease (which is usually all via email, again because the supposed landlord says he is out of town) but when it comes to getting the keys, they find that they have signed a lease with a bogus agent or landlord.

In both of the scenarios above the prospective tenants would usually be told that the unit is in high demand and that the deposit payment must be made with some urgency to secure the unit.

"Never, ever," warns Cawood, "be willing to pay over any money unless the property has been viewed and the agent or landlord is willing to meet you in person at the property to be rented."

If the agent is a legitimate agent, he will be willing to meet the tenant in person, preferably at his offices, to sign the lease and to go through all the finer details of the agreement, as well as being able to produce a valid Fidelity Fund Certificate. Even if an agent is a one man operation, and works from home, he will still need to have an FFC in order to work as an estate agent legally, said Cawood.

If there is no agent involved, and the landlord is advertising privately, he should be able to meet the tenant in person to view the property, hand over an application form, sign a lease, and hand over the keys. If ever a supposed landlord says he is out of town and has to get the keys from someone to deliver or courier to the tenant, warning bells should be ringing, said Cawood.

Landlords and agents alike will usually ask for various information from tenants and the application form will often be comprehensive. If things such as proof of earnings, previous rental information, employment information and references are not asked for, the tenants need to ask the question, "Why?"

In addition to relevant information being asked for, said Cawood, all bona fide agents will have to FICA tenants and will do a credit check. The prospective tenant needs to sign the application form giving permission to do a credit check on them.

"With all rentals, whether through an agent or a private landlord, if it sounds too good to be true, it is," said Cawood. "If the rent is low, if they do not do a comprehensive background check, or if they seem lax in the management of the property, these could all be warning signs that the rental is not a legitimate one and the tenant should ask many more questions to be sure that it is."

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