Letting agents are operating in an unregulated sector which is “reminiscent of the Wild West”, a housing charity has warned.
Shelter Scotland has called on the Scottish Government to introduce legislation to regulate the industry.
Director Graeme Brown hit out at “cowboy letting agents”, who were causing “havoc and upheaval to despairing tenants”.
The number of families in private rented accommodation has almost doubled in the past ten years to 290,000 households.
Shelter Scotland said complaints about letting agents to the UK’s property ombudsman had increased by 123 per cent in five years.
Problems faced by tenants include poor customer service, such as agents not turning up to appointments or using aggressive sales tactics, while some agents did not put deposits into a protection scheme.
Other agents failed to carry out regular inspection of a property, leaving serious repairs unnoticed – and others charged tenants a fee for a reference to give to their new letting agent – in addition to charges already paid for a “reference check” carried out by the new agent.
Mr Brown said: “Private renting in Scotland is growing and changing, driven by the fast- increasing number of families and individuals looking for a safe, secure and affordable place to call home.
“Despite this, letting agents have been allowed to carry on in an unregulated sector reminiscent of the Wild West, with the flagrant disregard for the law by some causing havoc and upheaval to despairing tenants.”
Mr Brown, who argued that regulation would also benefit responsible letting agents, added: “We want the Scottish Government to ensure that agents in Scotland are effectively regulated, so that all tenants and landlords get a fair deal and the chance to make a house a home.”
There are 155 letting agents in Scotland who have voluntarily signed up to the Association of Residential Letting Agents, which has a code of conduct.
But it is estimated there are about 500 letting agents operating north of the Border, who are involved in more than 150,000 private lettings a year.
Shelter Scotland believes an independent regulatory body should be established and a formal, mandatory code of conduct should be introduced. It also calls for an independent scheme to deal with disputes.
The Shelter report said: “It is clear there is a need for a good-quality, well-regulated letting agent sector in Scotland.”
It said the rules governing letting agents were “not effective” and argued that “further regulation is the way forward”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said it was committed to improving letting agent practice, saying its new strategy would be released on 30 May.
“That is why we clarified the law last year to make it clear that the charging of premium payments for entering into a private rented tenancy was not allowed, and also introduced the Tenancy Deposit Scheme to safeguard tenants’ deposit money,” he said.
“Further regulation of the letting agent industry received broad support, including from the industry itself, as part of a consultation on a new strategy for the private rented sector.”