Properties or rooms to rent are often shown on line with Gumtree increasingly becoming the platform of choice. Would-be tenants reply to adverts and are asked to call or email requesting more details and in some cases arrange viewings.
These properties are mostly advertised without pictures so local estate agents and the property owners cannot identify the property if they are researching online.
Email addresses can be set up fairly easily and you can get pay as you go mobile phone cards from most phone retailers who don't take the buyers' addresses etc which makes it easier for the phone numbers to 'disappear'. On the face of it, this makes it very easy for the fake landlord to set up easily disposable communication channels - although all fake landlords should be warned that the police now have very tried and tested ways of tracing communications back to them!
Once at the property the victims are sometimes told that the fake landlord has forgotten the keys but if they pay a holding fee they will have first refusal whilst the landlord goes and gets the keys. That's the last they see of their cash and or any identity documents they have handed over.
It's not surprising that desperate or inexperienced tenants may feel they need to move fast when seeing properties advertised online as some rents are too good to be true. However, they shouldn't overlook the warning signs and should never part with cash on the doorstep even if the landlord looks and sounds genuine.
Devon and particularly Exeter are not immune to this criminal activity and we have seen a surge in victims with university students and young single working people being targeting.
I have come across cases where fake tenancy agreements which can be downloaded from the internet have been signed and rent paid into the fake landlord's bank accounts.
Tips to spot potentially fake listings include looking out for offers that seem a little too attractive. Adverts with no pictures should set the warning bells ringing. Beware of adverts that are very detailed and promising a lot or are very vague and could be describing any room in the country. Alarm bells should also sound if you're told a flat belongs to a family member or friend who is abroad and cannot meet with you in person.
So for all potential tenants searching online for properties or rooms to rent I would offer the following advice
- See if there is an agent's board outside possibly hidden behind bins. If so contact the agent to see if they are aware of the landlord.
- Don't rent a property or pay ANY money until you have been inside the property. It sounds crazy, but plenty of would-be tenants are fobbed off by excuses about why they can't be given access to a property in advance and are pressured into paying a 'holding deposit' to someone who then disappears.
- Warning bells should also sound if you are shown 'an identical' flat in a block rather than the actual property.
- Find out who owns the property as too many would-be tenants hand over cash to landlords when all they know is a name and a mobile number from an online advert. A reputable landlord will want to check you are a bona fide tenant so you are entitled to do some checks on them.
- Ask to see their ID and some proof of ownership or of their right to rent the home. If landlords have a mortgage, you have more rights if the lender knows the place is tenanted - a 'consent to rent' document will show that it does.
- If possible take a picture of the landlord and their car if they have arrived in one.
- Walk away if you're asked to transfer your deposit or rent money through a firm such as Western Union or MoneyGram. These are reputable firms that serve specific needs - but they're not designed for the landlord/tenant relationship.
- If your landlord won't take a cheque for the deposit and have subsequent payments paid by direct debit then something is likely to be wrong.
- Don't give away too much information. Genuine landlords will want to do credit checks, get references from past landlords and know where you work. But while they may want to see original documents they should never take them away from you. Have copies available.
- Demand a proper tenancy agreement. Assured shorthold tenancies are the norm and give legally binding rights and responsibilities to both sides.
- Check where your deposit money will be held. Landlords in England and Wales are legally obliged to use one of three official deposit protection schemes - search 'tenancy deposit' at gov.uk for information and details of schemes for other parts of the UK.
I should point out that the majority of landlords are honest, but tenants must protect themselves against the fraudsters. And finally if you have any doubts or suspect the landlord is fake or you have already been tricked into parting with money report the incident to the police via their 101 telephone service. Make sure you obtain a crime number as this will make it easier to follow up.
I would be more than happy to talk to any past victims of this type of crime so feel free to contact me in confidence.