Scams involving fake landlords and bogus lettings agents are rife in the private rentals sector, and may have been made worse by the recent increased use of virtual viewings.
Now the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agents Team - which presides over both the sales and rentals side of the agency industry - has issued a warning.
“Lettings scams have been an issue for a number of years and have a devastating effect on consumers and businesses” according to Alison Farrar, NTSELAT operations manager.
Virtual viewings have proliferated because of formal restrictions on physical viewings at different times over the past year, and because of public resistance for face-to-face meetings and entering strangers’ properties.
Farrar says many of the scams have overseas renters, usually students, as victims - travel restrictions have made virtual viewings even more common amongst these would-be tenants. However, some landlords have been duped by fake lettings agency adverts too.
Farrar says: “Criminals often place fake adverts for properties to let, or they respond to flat-hunters’ posts, claiming they have the perfect property.
“The criminals pose as landlords or letting agents and offer properties to rent, taking holding deposits, security deposits and other fees up front without allowing the prospective tenant to see the property, often stealing photos and property details from unsuspecting genuine agents’ webites.
“This can cause a number of problems for the genuine businesses who have suffered harm to their identity and reputation, as well as costing thousands to unsuspecting potential tenants.
“Before the pandemic made this easier for them, criminals would use a variety of excuses to explain why the property could not be viewed, claiming they were out of the country, or that a tenant was in the process of moving out.
“The victims would then pay monies up front via bank transfers or untraceable money transfer services, and often don’t realise the property does not exist until the point at which they expect to move in.
“The National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team would urge all tenants to research any letting agency, landlord and property before agreeing to hand over any money.
“It’s advisable to research the agent on lots of review sites and use the internet if possible to check the property is genuine. It’s also important to check whether the agent needs to have redress or client money protection membership, with different requirements in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”