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.

Scammers use legitimate listings on property portals or agent websites, which they then advertise somewhere else - usually 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.

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.

However, once they have the money they disappear, leaving their victim without a home and 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.

There are also scams where the grifter poses as a landlord who lives far away, they 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.

There’s also 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, actually showing 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.

Unfortunately, it would seem that these schemes always 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.

How to protect yourself

  • 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.