Watchdog’s Report on the Letting Scammers
Whilst going out is currently a bit of a challenge, I watched last night’s One Show and was delighted by the Watchdog segment. Some timely advice for those looking to rent a house. Unfortunately, scammers are everywhere and the rental sector is not without their interference. Sadly, those of us who do it right and comply with all the regulations seem to find ourselves with more legislation to cope with, whilst those operating outside of the system continue to do so.
There are some very simple rules:
You must view a property
In January you would not have thought about renting without seeing a property. COVID has, of course, turned this round and this is one area where scammers are capitalising. There may be genuine circumstances where a viewing is not possible, but you must check, double check, triple check that the property exists and the letting is genuine. Watchdog suggested a Google Revers Image search to see if the pictures are being used elsewhere (scammers often “borrow” lovely photos of other peoples’ property). If the photograph has text across it, this may be a deliberate attempt to avoid the Google Reverse Image search.
Check phone numbers carefully
The examples they had on the show were on Zoopla, but the tenants used number contained within the letting text, not the proper numbers listed. Legitimate agents’ sites had been hacked and tenants were given new numbers within the photograph. Again, a check on the legitimacy of the agent you are phoning is essential.
There were also cases where the tenant was diverted from Zoopla to Airbnb. Tenants should question why this would happen. This is not the platform for lettings agents.
Do not pay any agency fees
It is unlawful for a letting agent to charge fees to a tenant. They may collect a damage deposit (maximum five weeks rent) and the rent, of course. They may also take a holding deposit (maximum one week’s rent) but this has to be set against rent or refunded. There is recent and strict legislation on charges that can be made to tenants.
Make Sure Deposits are Protected
If a landlord (or agent on their behalf) takes a damage deposit, they are legally obliged to protect it and to inform the tenant which scheme it is in. Tenants should ask at the outset how agents deal with deposits.
This is all good stuff and I would add a few more useful pointers:
Check the Agent
Following on from Watchdog’s points about checking telephone numbers I would suggest that prospective tenants check out the agent. Any decent agent will not object. Although there is a plethora of rules and regulations, there really is very little to stop anyone setting up as an agent. Find out as much as you can before you part with your money.
- Legally they must be in a redress scheme
- Legally they must register with HMRC for anti-money laundering processes
- Legally they must be in a scheme to protect deposits
- Legally they must have clients’ money protection
I realise that in many areas rental property is in short supply and rents can be quite high, but the agent who cuts corners to get you into a property may well turn out to be a scammer. Doing things properly takes time and money. The idea of handing over money to someone you don’t know (or can’t verify) for a property you’ve never seen, with limited information is worrying.
Hopefully you will get a viewing, but if not do try and meet the people involved. Go to the agent’s office. Meet the landlord.
For just £3 you can check who owns a house with the Land Registry. Is this the person you have been told is the owner? Is it the person named in the tenancy agreement? Have you Googled them? Are they all easy to trace?
Just do as much as you can to verify all the details.
I can’t believe that any legitimate agent would ask for cash. Only pay direct to bank. Most banks now have the facility to check that the name you have been given matches the legitimate account owner. Again, be entirely sure what you are paying for and to whom.
Lettings are paperwork heavy. There is a raft of documentation that the agent/landlord must provide to you – The How to Rent Guide, EPC, Deposit Protection, gas safety certificate, electrical safety certificate, tenancy agreement and so on. If the agent seems a big vague then walk away. Any legitimate agent will have all paperwork to hand and will be happy to provide it.
I realise it’s very tempting for tenants to jump in, perhaps because it’s new to them, time is precious and supply is tight, but everyone needs to think before they lose out. The consequences can be life changing for some people, losing several months’ pay to scammers.
Luckily for most people their rental happens without incident and the vast majority of landlords and agents are providing a decent service. I would reiterate that there is much regulation surrounding the industry, so no excuse for tenants not being well treated in a professional manner.
Graham Bowcock MRICS
Oakwood Valuation Surveyors Ltd