Tenants beware: how to watch out for rogue landlords

Bogus landlords are taking rental deposits without having properties to rent, says the accidental landlord.
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You have to feel sorry for the 3,000 tenants in the UK swindled last year by bogus landlords. But I’m not surprised this type of crime is on the rise — up 50 per cent in a year.

In the seven years that I’ve been letting rooms, at least half a dozen tenants from overseas have transferred hundreds of pounds in rent and deposit payments to my bank account to secure places I have advertised online. 

Most of them never even spoke to me before sending the money. We usually had a brief email exchange in which they asked for things such as blankets and pillows, but not for important stuff like ID or proof that I actually owned the property.

The most recent example was a guy who was coming to London to work for three months in Wimbledon. He paid me £600 on the strength of a few photographs I had posted online.

Getting foreigners who are coming to London to work or study to pay for accommodation up front is, unfortunately for them, like taking candy from a baby. Luckily for those who sent me money, I am not a crook. The worst crime I have committed is accidentally parking in a residents-only bay.

But how are these tenants to know that?

In fact the only tenant who has refused to transfer her first month’s rent and deposit to my bank account had actually met me and seen the room. Maybe I look sinister? It’s a worry.

Anyway, I agreed to hold the room for her if she brought cash when she moved in. There are other ways tenants can make sure they don’t fall prey to scammers, the most obvious being not to pay a penny until they or a friend has seen the property and made sure that it exists — and isn’t a total dump.

I had a tenant who had paid £500 to another landlord for a room she had seen advertised online, but when she arrived at the flat it was a hovel. The room was as described, but the loo had no door and there was no hot water.

She moved to my lovely flat after a week, but the other landlord refused to refund any of the rent she had already paid. I have heard far worse stories of tenants paying thousands to crooks who advertise properties they stories of tenants paying thousands to crooks who advertise properties they don’t own.

This sort of scam could be stamped out, or at least stifled, if property websites insisted on landlords providing proof of ownership before they accept their ads but, as far as I’m aware, the only one to do this is Rightmove.

Tenants have to be more careful when looking for properties on social media. There are loads of legitimate rentals on these sites — they’re a great place to look for more affordable digs — but there might be bogus ones, too.

You can check who owns a property on the Land Registry website — it only costs £3 — then ask to see a copy of the landlord’s passport to make sure the names match. Don’t be shy. After all, landlords will have to ask to see a tenant’s ID from next February, so why not ask for theirs?

Don’t be fooled into thinking it is safe to hand over money just because you have been sent a tenancy agreement — anyone can cut and paste these from the internet. 

Probably the best advice is never to pay more than a small holding fee and ask the landlord if you can swap the keys for cash on the day you move in. If they refuse, look elsewhere.
  • Victoria Whitlock lets three properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock

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