Don’t fall prey to rental grifters

As consumer budgets come under increasing strain, the demand for affordable rental accommodation is rising – and making it easier for bogus agents and landlords to defraud potential tenants.

There are a few different scams used by these crooks, but one of the most common at the moment is to impersonate a legitimate agent in order to get their hands on the deposit and first month’s rent before disappearing.

Julie Ruwers, residential property manager for Trafalgar* in Durban, says the scam usually begins with the bogus agent “lifting” the details of a property that is to rent off a letting agency’s website or a property portal, then advertising the property elsewhere at a lower or “special” rental.

“These scammers usually use the classified ads either in the papers or online, and sometimes they even use the agency’s name and logo as well as the name of a real agent working for that company. They do this to reassure potential tenants who might prefer to deal with a well-known agency and might even be cautious enough to call the company and see if an agent with a certain name does work there.

“Then when people respond to their adverts, they usually tell them that the rent ‘special’ is only on for the next few days, that there are plenty of other people also interested, and that they need to pay the deposit and sometimes even the first month’s rent quickly in order to secure the apartment, after which they will need to go to the agency’s office to sign the lease and get the keys.

“But of course they then disappear with the money, and when the prospective tenants do visit the agency it is only to find that the person they were dealing with was an impostor, that there is no lease to sign and that they have been defrauded of a large amount of money.”

Variations on this scam include bogus agents making use of actual agency lease documents obtained by posing at some stage as a prospective tenant, or making use of their own photographs of the flat they are offering, obtained in the same way. Tenants who sign up for flats in these instances are then usually directed to the agency to pick up the keys.

Trafalgar MD Andrew Schaefer says various other fraudulent schemes he has encountered over the years also include those in which the grifter poses as a landlord who lives far away, but will arrange for a local relative or friend to hand over the keys as soon as the prospective tenant has paid a hefty deposit into their bank account.

“And then there’s the ‘helpful friend’ scam in which the fraudster somehow manages to get keys to the property, claims to be a friend or employee of the owner and will actually show prospective tenants around before asking them to fill in an application form containing all their personal details and to pay a deposit which they will supposedly get back if their application doesn’t succeed. Of course the immediate aim in these cases is to defraud as many people of their deposits as possible before disappearing, but there can also be a more sinister motive, which is to obtain the personal details of potential tenants for later use in identity theft schemes.”

“What is more, these schemes always seem to become more prevalent when times are tough and consumers are under financial pressure. Young and inexperienced people relocating to the city for work or to study are also favourite targets of rental scammers.”

Fortunately, however, there are some simple steps they can take to protect themselves, including the following:

·         Never make any payment until you have viewed the flat, inside and out;

·         If a “special deal” is advertised under an agency or agent name, call the agency to verify all the details;

·         Never give personal information over the phone or via email to someone you have not met, or to someone who cannot verify their relationship to an agency or a landlord;

·         If you are renting from a private landlord, insist on meeting them and ask for proof of ownership;

·         Always insist on a written lease and check it carefully before you sign;

·         Don’t allow anyone to pressure you to pay because there are supposedly lots of other people interested in the flat. It’s a sure sign of a scam; 

·         Preferably pay your deposit into the trust account of a reputable letting agency registered with the Estate Agency Affairs Board.

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