An absolutely horrific story appeared in the Pretoria News last week about a group of prospective tenants who had all forked out large sums of money to rent the same property. During the investigation it came to light that at least 20 people had “rented” the property, each paying a deposit of R7 500 and receiving keys to the home before realising that something was amiss – mostly when 20 furniture trucks converged on the property on moving day.
The scary part is that not only was the fraud well thought out, it was also well executed. Everyone from the gardener, who ensured that those viewing the home did so at different times, to an estate agent, who was paid a monthly sum of R20 000, played a part. The owner who had rented out the property to the scamsters was oblivious to the fact that her property was being advertised on a number of different websites.
What is disturbing is that one of those who was defrauded stated that he would never again rent a property via the Internet. While this statement, given the circumstances, may be understandable, is it logical? Thousands of people successfully rent properties via the Internet every day and the question must be asked: does a bad apple or two taint the entire barrel?
Around March 2013, Private Property started noticing a marked increase in the number of fraudulent listings being loaded and continues to go all out to stop the con artists in their tracks.
“The system we have in place allows us to match the ‘landlord’ to the actual Deeds Office data,” says Barrie Knox-Davies, Private Property’s Support Centre Manager. “We have become extremely diligent in ensuring that when we activate a rental we have matched the person who is loading the listing to a Deeds Office ownership and, if we cannot do so, we contact this person to find out who they are in relation to the actual owner of the property.”
In other words anyone attempting to lease out a property that they do not own will be investigated to ensure that all is above board and that the actual owner is aware of the transaction.
Private Property also uses tip-offs received by its users and takes immediate action. “When this happens, we immediately remove the adverts from the website and block the listers from being able to log in to their profiles on our system. They are essentially left with having to create new profiles with email addresses and contact numbers that differ from their previous profiles.”
This initiative has proved to be highly successful and, although scamming is generally on the increase, most fraudulent listings are discovered by Private Property’s support centre team and don’t actually appear on the website at all.
“Unfortunately, the fraudulent operators have become increasingly sophisticated in the way that they try to activate their listings on our website. They are brazen to the point of chatting to us directly in order to get their listings activated. But we have pulled out all the stops in order for our clients to conduct their business within a secure environment and the results speak for themselves,” says Barrie.
This of course does not mean that prospective tenants should throw caution to the wind and hand over deposit monies without first double-checking that everything is above board. Barrie says that it is vital for the tenant to ask the landlord for proof of ownership before signing a lease agreement and handing over a deposit.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice is that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.