How to recognise and avoid rental scams

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

Rental scams are on the rise and unfortunately, many people still fall for them. Here’s how to spot the common red flags.

It seems that no matter where you look there’s some sort of scam doing the rounds. Wealthy ‘family members’ who want to leave you gazillions of Rand (for a small fee), lottery wins in lotteries you never bought a ticket for, ‘Microsoft engineers’ who call, enticing you to log onto your computer to correct a fault while they stay on the phone to guide you into their trap - the list is endless.

It's usually fairly easy to spot a scam. Bad grammar, spelling errors and the sheer ridiculousness of the scheme should generally raise red flags. (Remember the Nigerian who was trying to raise $30-million to get his astronaut cousin, who had apparently been stuck in the International Space Station since 1990, home). However, however people still get caught out all the time.

We all make mistakes when writing (a particular journalist who shall remain nameless once wrote walk-in panty instead of pantry) but alarm bells should start ringing when an email telling you you've won or inherited something is fraught with errors.

But what if the scam is well written, well thought out and sounds plausible?

Rental scams are commonplace and unfortunately people get taken in all the time, losing a great deal of money in the process. A property, complete with a description and photographs, is advertised on a website. More often than not, the rent is lower than average and the photos depict a really nice-looking home.

When contacted the ‘owner’ or ‘agent’ asks the applicant to fill in an application form and to supply various documents. All seems above board at this point, but the wheels rapidly fall off when the advertiser starts demanding an application fee as well as a deposit to secure the property before the applicant has viewed it.

It's important to remember that con artists who hold themselves out to be an owner/agent are not stupid and might well arrange a viewing and then come up with a range of excuses as to why they couldn't keep the appointment. In another scenario, the scamster will say he's out of town and won't be in a position to show the property until he gets back. He will also usually attach some form of urgency to the transaction, stating that he's received a number of applications and the prospective tenant needs to show his genuine intent by paying a deposit.

In a genuine rental deal, no money will change hands until the tenant has met with the owner or agent and the property has been viewed. Anyone who asks for money upfront should be avoided, regardless of how professional they seem. The so-called application form can also provide a number of clues that all may not be as it seems. Savvy landlords need to ascertain certain information and tenants should be asked to provide proof of income, an employment history as well as references from previous landlords. Tenants who are not asked to provide some, if not all, of the above information should start asking questions.

Photographs of the interior of the home don't offer any guarantee that the person advertising the home is legally entitled to do so. Many scam artists keep an eye on legitimate rental listings and copy and paste the listing in order to fleece unsuspecting victims.

Some scam artists hold themselves out to be estate agents and will often have a multitude of reasons as to why a prospective tenant cannot view the home. One of the more common excuses is that their client is currently out of the country, but is in the process of couriering the keys to them.

Every estate agent has to be registered with the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) and have an up-to-date Fidelity Fund certificate. These certificates are issued on an annual basis and must reflect that the agent is licensed to practise for the current year. Tenants should insist on meeting the agent concerned in person and seeing a copy of the certificate. Those who have doubts can call the EAAB to ascertain whether the agent is registered. It's important to remember that regardless of any excuse given, it's illegal for an agent to practise if they are not in possession of this important document.

In a nutshell, prospective tenants should note the following:

  • Don't pay any form of deposit or application fee until you have physically viewed the inside of a property.

  • Start asking questions if the rental is far cheaper than similar offerings in the area.

  • Don't be swayed by a plethora of excuses as to why the property can't be viewed. Walk away if the person advertising the home doesn't have possession of the keys.

  • Check and see if the agency marketing the rental property has a valid Fidelity Fund certificate.

  • Only look for suitable properties on reputable property portals like Private Property or on the websites of recognised agencies.

  • Be wary of adverts on free classified websites. Reputable agents seldom make use of this form of advertising.

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