An increasing number of rental scams are reported to the Tenant Profile Network (TPN) Credit Bureau across South Africa. There are likely many more, but due to embarrassment and shame, some are never reported.
An open home gives scam artists easy opportunity to pose as landlords or rental agents, list the house online and wait for unsuspecting victims to take the bait.
“It affects mainly middle-income price brackets,” says TPN’s MD, Michelle Dickens, who notes this is a growing problem. “Often the property is valued below market value and therefore seems like an excellent ‘not to be missed’, ‘act quickly’ opportunity.”
Harry Meyburgh, director at Etchells & Young Property Brokers, agrees, saying it affects rentals between R4,500 and R8,500, where fraudsters place online ads on popular sites or portals such as Gumtree.
“They clone a real advert placed elsewhere by an estate agent or landlord, but advertise the property for a lot less – 30% to 40% cheaper than the going market rate,” he says. “They can get quite sophisticated and gain access to the actual property for rent via the security guards in a complex and will then even show the property to potential victims. They often masquerade as the rental agent assigned to the property and go as far as stealing the documentation of legitimate companies by posing as potential tenants and asking for the application forms. They would then pretend to go through the application process with the victim and advise them that they have been approved and provide bank details for the payment of the deposit and first month’s rent. Once the money has been paid, they would string the victim along for a few days and then disappear, leaving the victim without access to the rental property and their money gone.”
As far as recourse goes, there is very little victims can do, according to Dickens who says a case should be opened with the police.
“If the scam artist is an estate agent, open a case at the Estate Agency Affairs Board and report it to the listing website,” she says.
The more risk flags that are present in a transaction, the more research the tenant should perform before parting with their money:
- The landlord only operates with a cell phone number (no landline)
- The tenant never actually gains access to the property – the transaction is based on photos or the landlord is not available (out of town) and cannot open the property for viewing until the 1st – move in day
- The landlord only has a free email address
- The property is below market value
- If you are dealing with an estate agent ensure you ask for their fidelity fund certificate. If money is lost or stolen, the fidelity fund insurance will cover it. The estate agent’s fidelity fund status can be validated at the Estate Agency Affairs Board
- Google search the property to see if there are other listings with a different landlord
- Google search the cell phone number / landlord to see if there is anything suspicious reported
- Ask the landlord for a landline number / work email address
- Never hand cash over – make payment into the estate agency or landlord’s bank account. Perform an Account Verification Check on your online banking to verify the bank account is active (more than 3 months) and matches the name of the landlord you have been provided
- Perform a deeds search on deeds.gov.za to confirm the landlord you are dealing with is the same one registered as the property owner.