Beware of fake landlord scams in rental sector - David Alexander

For some people finding affordable rental accommodation is difficult enough without the threat of ending up out of pocket and still no roof over their heads.

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander
David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander

But that is what happened recently to a number of would-be tenants, seeking to rent flats in Edinburgh, according to a BBC Scotland special investigation which was broadcast last week.

Basically it went like this. A mystery individual calling himself “William Wilson” managed to obtain the keys of a flat on Fishmarket Close in the Old Town which is regularly let out on a short-stay basis. Without the knowledge of the owner “Wilson” scanned in photographs from a legitimate website and advertised the property for long-term let. He even managed to obtain the services of a “viewing agent” to show people round.

In the end several potential tenants were taken in and then collectively paid several thousand pounds in “deposits” for accommodation that was never available in the first place. There is now no trace of the money.

Fraud is rising in the rental market.

More widely, the conventional rental market is becoming vulnerable to this and similar types of fraud, especially as the pandemic has led to a sharp increase in virtual, as opposed to literal, property viewings. Of course we have long been aware of similar situations in the overseas self-catering sector, a typical incident being a family paying a four-figure sum for a two-week stay in a villa in Tenerife and turning up to find it already occupied because they had been scammed online by a “ghost” landlord with no connection whatsoever to the property.

Trying to secure rental accommodation on their own makes individuals more vulnerable to scams, especially if new to a city like Edinburgh where demand is at such a high level. One of the apparent reasons for so many people prepared to pay a deposit on the Fishmarket Close flat was that the rental seemed below the market average for this type of property in this location, the moral being: “If something seems too good to be true – it usually is”.

Of course, everyone has a perfect right to act independently in securing rental accommodation rather than going through an agent and in doing so they may even save themselves a bit of money. Equally, however, I think it also fair to explain how the process undergone by legitimate agencies prevents, or at least minimises the chances, of potential tenants being scammed by rogue or non-existent landlords.

After a bargain has been agreed a lease will be drawn up and the tenant encouraged to read through it carefully before handing over the required deposit and advance rental for the first month’s occupancy. Once these are paid through cleared funds the tenant will be handed the keys of the property and the deposit placed with an independently-operated rental deposit scheme; normally it will be returned (less any reduction for genuine damage as opposed to normal wear and tear) when the lease expires.

In passing it is relevant to mention that the agent will also carry out a character and financial background check on the would-be tenant, to ascertain that he or she is not a scammer (landlords can be victims too) and, even if legitimate, has the means to afford the agreed rental payments.

Fortunately one potential victim of the Fishmarket Close scam – a law student – became aware that something was not quite right and managed to withdraw before handing over any money. Unfortunately, not long afterward he was persuaded to part with £450 after another fake landlord asked for the money upfront to view a property, a viewing which, of course, never took place.

Suffice to say that a bona fide letting agent will never ask for a fee to view a property, not just because it is morally wrong but also because it is against the law.

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander

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