Rental scams - avoid becoming a victim!

Private Property South Africa
Property Power

There seems to be a sudden rise in the number of people who have found themselves becoming victim to property rental scams. Prospective tenants have lost thousands of Rands paying deposits for properties advertised by fraudsters. In this age of information it is becoming easier and easier for those with negative intentions to pull the wool over the eyes of their victims. They produce what seems like a legitimate offer which often includes photos of a property and almost all of the information one would acquire from a legitimate landlord. However, there are a few ways to tell whether you are dealing with the actual owner/agent of the property or whether it is just another elaborate attempt to rob you of your hard-earned cash.

How does a rental scam work?

Usually in a rental scam, the fraudster will place a bogus advertisement, either online or in local classifieds, which will be the bait to lure unsuspecting potential tenants. Before placing the advertisement, the fraudster will do his research and obtain as much information as possible about the property. These advertisements often include photographs of the property and the fraudster will even go as far as to include ‘ready-to-sign’ fake contracts which he has drawn up, using a false name and contact details.

You, the prospective tenant, will come across the advertisement – which usually offers a great deal for a low rental (well below the market rental for the area in which the property is situated) – and immediately contact the “landlord/rental agent” offering the property. At this point the fraudster begins to spin you a very well thought out tale, for example, he is out of the country on business or he does not want to disturb the current tenants but he has photographs which he will email to you instead – any excuse to avoid showing you the property in person. The fraudster will then make arrangements for the deposit (and sometimes the first month’s rent) to be deposited into an account, promising that on receiving the deposit he will contact you, the new tenant, to make arrangements to deliver the keys to your newly rented property.

However, in reality, on receiving your deposit the fraudster will make a swift disappearance and become unreachable on any of the contact details which had been provided before… leaving you short your payment that you have made and without any accommodation to show for it.

So, how can you avoid this situation?

Trust your gut! If you do not feel that the offer is legitimate or sounds “too good to be true” or you feel like the person you are dealing with is trying to withhold important information, chances are that you are correct and could very well be dealing with a scam. It is not a good idea to continue pursuing a situation which makes you feel uncomfortable. Some other tips to root out the fraudsters from the serious landlords/rental agents, if you feel you could be dealing with a scam, are as follows:

  • Investigate and try to obtain as much information as you can with regards to the property. Find out from people living in neighbouring properties (if you can locate the exact address) if the owner is in fact who he claims to be. You should also try to find out if the property has been rented out before and how long it has been rented out for and when the current tenants (if any exist) moved in to the property and when they will be leaving. If the property is not currently being leased to anyone, find out why the owner of the property does not live there himself. If there are currently tenants leasing the property, try to speak to them as well and compare the answers you have received to those given to you by the landlord/rental agent. The more questions you ask and information you gather, the better your chances are of uncovering any potential for a scam. (Do keep in mind that there have been cases when a fraudulent “landlord” has been working together with the tenants – so it is important to check your information with the neighbours as well.)

  • If all of the above information seems to check out, but you still feel the answers you are getting are too vague then ask to be provided with the utilities account of the property – this will provide proof of the identity of the registered owner. At the same time, make sure that all of the charges on the account have been paid up to date – if the account is in arrears, the municipality could cut off the water and electricity connection to the property, which would negatively impact on the tenant. Take note of the reaction you get from the landlord/rental agent when asking about the property charges account, if they are unwilling to provide you with this information, then you could be dealing with a scam.

  • If you have already been provided with a copy of the rental contract, have an attorney look over it and make sure that it is in fact a legitimate legal document. If you have not been provided with a copy of the rental contract, make sure you insist that one is provided to you and have it verified by an attorney.

  • If you have been granted the opportunity to view the property, but you feel like there is something ‘fishy’ going on, always take somebody you trust with you as a safety measure and a witness. Take down as much information, about the property and the people you are meeting with, as you can. Try and get a vehicle registration number or a photo of the property which includes the person showing the property to you. In the event of you falling prey to a scam, these things could help you identify the culprits.

  • If you are dealing with an agent, make sure that he works for a reputable estate agency. Find out from the agent his full name, surname, identity number and which branch he works for then phone the company to confirm his identity and that he is in fact an employee at the firm. If you are dealing with the owner of the property, make sure that you receive his full name, surname and identity number which you can confirm through your local authority.

Always be wary and investigate as much as possible, it is far better to be safe than sorry. Ask many questions and make sure that you are 100% satisfied with all of the answers you have received. Remember that a fraudster will have done all of his research and his aim is to sound as genuine as he possibly can – this is why so many people fall prey to this sort of scam.

This article originally appeared in Property Power 11th Edition Magazine. To order your copy at the discounted price of R120 click here.

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