House hunting is tough enough as it is, without the worry that you might get scammed.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to 18,645 people since to 2014, losing £1,396 on average or a staggering £22 million overall, according to Action Fraud.
The reason is rental fraud: a scam where prospective tenants are tricked into paying an upfront fee for a property that doesn’t exist, has already been rented out, or simply doesn’t belong to the supposed owner.
Victims are targeted using elaborate online adverts and, in some cases, fraudsters even agreed to show the victim the property in person.
University students are particularly at risk, with fraudsters taking advantage of huge demand for housing at the start of term to pressure students into handing over fees.
Similar to rental fraud, holiday fraud targets those looking for a villa or apartment rental, or even entire package holidays.
It spikes in July and August, when people go on holiday, according to Action Fraud.
It often starts with an online advert or unsolicited email, text or call, offering a holiday at a very low price.
Fraudsters ask victims to pay in cash or via a bank transfer on MoneyWise or Western Union, before ending contact completely.
Tips to stay safe
Visiting a property is essential, or in the case of holiday rentals, looking for genuine-looking photos.
You can check the owner is on an approved accommodation list from your university if you’re a student, or part of the National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) or Association of Residential Lettings Agents (ARLA).
Never hand over money until you have the landlord’s name and contact address. You can check the landlord actually owns the property you’re moving into on the Land Registry’s website.
When booking a holiday, make sure the website has a padlock icon (https) in the address bar and that the site is a member of the Association of British Travel Agents.
Avoid paying by bank transfer: the safest way to pay for rentals is by credit card in person at the lettings agent – you should also book holidays by credit card (and not just because of scams).
Why do we even have rental fees?
Rental fraudsters are able to exist because there a number of perfectly legal fees landlords can charge tenants, as well as the housing deposit itself.
In some cases, however, even these legal fees can move into legal grey areas.
Homelessness charity Shelter has highlighted the problems of landlords charging for previously undisclosed costs, disappearing deposits and persuading tenants to pay more for rent each month instead of a deposit, and then refusing to return the deposit.
Despite all this, the Government has put off banning lettings agents’ fees and regulating deposits, until at least 2019.
It is possible, however, to find rental platforms that don’t charge lettings fees and can even waive deposits, providing you have a guarantor and pass reference checks.
If you’ve been approached by a possible rental or holiday fraudster, or been a victim, contact Action Fraud now.