Many people struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic as businesses closed their doors putting much of their staff on leave. This wasn’t a bright period for landlords and tenants either. The first had difficulties renting their houses as people, especially in big cities, were forced to downgrade to less expensive rents or decided to turn back to their hometowns. The second also felt the harsh financial consequences of the pandemic and looked for more affordable accommodation or had to leave their rented home as the owner decided to sell it. All the while, scammers lurked in the dark waiting for the right opportunity to trick people.
Rental rip-offs were quite frequent for the past year a half and, unfortunately, many of the victims still haven’t got the chance to recover their lost money. Rental fraud or property/landlord scams usually follow a similar pattern. Most of these scams are carried out in order to obtain the initial deposit from tenants. Once people pay this upfront fee to be able to rent the desired property, the alleged landlord or agent vanishes. After multiple attempts to reach out to that person by phone or email, the victims realize they got scammed.
There are different ways to advertise properties and scam people by convincing them to send a rental deposit. Most of the time, scammers rely on fake property rental advertisements. They create an eye-catching posting for a house or apartment, and they offer to rent it at a very convenient price. Once prospective tenants start making inquiries about that property, the scammer promptly answers in a friendly and professional way. After several phone conversations or emails exchange, the two strike up a deal. The agent or landlord quickly asks for a deposit, many times insisting that the money needs to be transferred as soon as possible because there are also other people waiting to rent that place.
Another common scenario is to rent the same property to different people. In the end, tenants find out about each other, but they are no longer able to locate the cunning agent. These sad but true stories don’t take place exclusively on the internet. In many cases, tenants have also visited the alleged rental properties. However, as they discovered after paying the upfront fee, that property was never really advertised for rental, was about to be sold, or belonged to someone who was not living there but wasn’t looking for tenants either.
In cases when the entire communication took place only online, the property often didn’t exist at all. After looking for the respective house or apartment at the given address, people realized there was no such accommodation. Basically, they were shown fake photos in the rental ads that persuaded them to rent the house.
The pandemic made these scams proliferate not only because many people were forced to get less expensive rents. It also offered scammers a legitimate reason not to meet the clients face to face and allow them to visit the property.
UK tenants seemed to be some of the most exposed nationalities to this sort of scam. There, between February 2020 and February 2021, Action Fraud, the national fraud and cyber-crime reporting center, registered over 4,000 rental fraud cases. The total amount of money people lost in these scams was more than £6million. The average loss per victim was £1,597. The most severe and prolific month for property scams seemed to have been December when this average amount increased by more than 100%. Overall, all types of scams boomed during the pandemic. According to Action Fraud, in the UK, there were more than 325,000 cases of online fraud reported by September 2020.
For those who got scammed by an impostor real estate broker, there are some ways to get money back. First, victims should report the crime to the police and give as many details as possible on how it occurred. However, the payment method is the decisive factor. Those who paid the deposit cash are less likely to be able to retrieve their money than those who transferred money through different payment methods such as traditional bank transfer or digital wallets. In their case, at least there is a trace of the fraudulent payment, and this proof can help authorities track down the authors.