Owners of empty property and would-be tenants are being warned about people falsely posing as landlords in order to let out property they do not own.
In some cases, theses opportunistic criminals are taking money for deposits then disappearing never to be seen again, but in even more brazen cases, ‘tenants’ have moved into properties and began paying regular rent. Sometimes continuing for months, they are totally unaware that they are handing their rent over to a complete stranger whom has no ownership of the property.
John Williams, of Outlook Property Agency, learnt that his identity had been stolen in order to facilitate a crime like this: The scammer used a corporate-seeming email address in John’s name, and imported the company logo and branding to make it look authentic. All text messages and phone calls also supposedly came from John Williams.
“The first I knew of it was when a woman phoned me up to ask about the keys to the flat she was about to rent. I had no knowledge of the property and asked who she had been dealing with.
“She said: ‘You’.
“I took three other phone calls like it.”
In total, four people were scammed out of £1000 each for supposed deposits.
In another case, also involving Outlook Property, the buyer happened to drive past the property to show it to a friend and saw signs of life inside.
The next day two Romanian families with little English were found by Williams living in the property. Police were called and Williams said:
“They were very unsympathetic. I told them that the tenants were victims but the police gave them half an hour to get out. I had been worrying about how I was going to get the property back for the vendor but there were these families left standing on the pavement.”
However some property owners and tenants have managed to make the best of a bad situation: in one case an owner quickly drafted a tenancy agreement for those found living in their property so that they could continue to stay until suitable accommodation was found.
Williams says: “The problem is massive, and growing, although whether it is largely a London issue, I don’t know. However, it is certainly something that all agents should be alert to.
“Typically, the fraudsters look for sales properties advertised on Rightmove, although in one of the cases we have experienced, there was no marketing on the portals and no For Sale board by request of the vendor.
“The fraudsters seem to use local knowledge to look for empty homes, such as probate properties, change the locks, and advertise on Gumtree.
“It has got to the stage where we are incredibly careful about marketing sales properties.
“We don’t put up For Sale boards without explaining the risks to the sellers, and we always make sure the properties look occupied at all times, using automatic timers to make the lights go on and off.”
Williams doesn’t blame the would-be tenants though, he believes that they’re usually innocent foreigners without the means to produce the kind of paperwork needed for proper referencing.
He said: “There is obviously a gap in the market to service this kind of tenant, who may have cash but no acceptable employment records. They have usually handed over money and signed what they believe are legitimate tenancy agreements.
“The police usually tell them they must leave immediately, potentially adding to the homelessness problem.”