The convenience of online rental listing puts options at your fingertips, but there’s some important things to watch out for.
Anywhere there are listings and reviews online, there’s usually scams. Unfortunately, some people are quick to take advantage of services that connect people to things they need.
Rental listings are a popular target for scammers. Prospective tenants are used to having personal details at the ready for applications, expect to be asked some questions, and ultimately, expect to hand over some money.
Scammers shouldn’t scare you off the Internet (there are plenty offline too). You just need to know how to guard against them and what to look out for.
- If it sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely is. Look for advertised prices well below the rest of the market, the promise of water views, full furnishings and any other combination of benefits for an impossible cheap rate.
- The landlord is overseas. Immediately a red flag, this is the oldest trick in the book. Though it may on occasion be true, it should be treated as suspect for safety’s sake.
- You’re asked to hand over money before anything else happens. If you’re asked for a viewing fee, a holding fee to secure a property, or any other kind of upfront fee (usually in the form of an electronic transfer), stop immediately. This isn’t standard practice and is deeply suspect.
- You’re being offered lots of excuses about why you can’t view the property, meet the owner, or go through usual channels. Just like that landlord who is overseas, something doesn’t add up.
- Dramatic or theatrical stories designed to appeal to charity or compassion (i.e. the owner has unexpectedly lost a family member and is desperate to rent their property).
- There’s something off about the photos in the listing. They may be low quality images (blurry, pixellated, or only one distant shot). They may be stock imagery or stolen from other websites. If you think you’ve seen a picture before, trust your instincts and run an image search on Google. Sometimes pictures show outdoor environments that don’t match up with the cities they’re advertised in (palm trees where there should be skyscrapers). Look very closely.
- Text within images. If an image has text superimposed, or is nothing but text itself (such as an email address), raise that red flag again. This is highly unusual and very suspect.
- The words in the ad may be clumsily composed and sound unprofessional. While agents can occasionally be accused of exaggerating, they know how to describe a property well, and have a certain style of writing. A fake listing looks and feels different.
- Look for US spelling in an Australian advertisement, poor grammar and spacing, or generic sounding company names.
- Look for repetition elsewhere. Cut and paste the content of the listing (including the address and any contact details) into a search engine. If it’s a popular scam, you’ll likely find it elsewhere. It may be mentioned on blogs or amateur scam watch sites (you should always check with official sources like SCAMwatch as well).
How to protect yourself
- Organise an inspection for the property. As SCAMwatch advises: “A drive by is not enough. With these types of scams, the property may genuinely exist, but it is owned by someone else.” If you press this point it may dissaude the scammer from pursuing you.
- Keep copies of any emails, letters or other correspondence you exchange with the landlord or representative you are dealing with, in case you need to provide these to the authorities.
- Do thorough online research about the property, the name of the person or company involved. If they do not have an online presence (or one that looks like it was hastily cobbled together), you’ll affirm you suspicions and can stop the conversation before it progresses any further. Remember that even fancy, professional looking sites and profiles can be fake. Check other review sites for those names or for similar activity.
- If you are checking references or recommendations, do so independently. Do not rely on contacts provided by the landlord, owner or representative.
- Lay your own groundwork with money and finances. Do not consent to a money transfer. This carries a high risk. If conducting an online transaction on the listing website, ensure it uses the latest in website security.
- Never, ever hand over money or information to someone you don’t trust. Obey your gut – it’s better to be safe than sorry. No landlord or agent could fault you for doing your due dilligence.
What to do if you’ve been targeted
If you suspect – or know – you’ve been scammed, you should report it right away to the ACCC’s Infocentre on 1300 302 502 or SCAMwatch (via their report a scam page).
This may help the authorities track down the culprits and will help warn others against the scam. The more people that report a scam, the more likely it is the scammer will have to change their tactics.
Pass on everything you can recall about the incident. Take a screen grab of the ad if you can (if it’s still live and online) and advise the authorities of anything you’ve told the scammer.
You should also report it to the website you found it on. There may be a Report button on the listing, otherwise send them an email or call. They will usually have a plan for dealing with these types of listings which includes taking it offline and investigating further. Don’t let other users of that website fall victim too.
If you have given anyone your personal or financial details, advise the authorities immediately, and contact your financial institutions to alert them your accounts have been compromised. You can usually prevent any further charges from occuring and cancel cards or accounts so no one can withdraw funds or access their contents.
If you sent money through a wire service, contact the service immediately and ask them to stop the transfer.
Reset passwords for online banking and other identifying accounts.For comprehensive information about scams and the law in Australia, visit SCAMwatch.
More useful tips are provided at www.staysmartonline.gov.au
Finally, take heart that it’s not all bad news out there. There are amazing opportunities for renters and property owners to meet each others needs and create fantastic experiences. Most stories are the good kind.So be smart, and have a great adventure!