Coronavirus restrictions have presented an opportunity for a new type of scam — rental scams — resulting in $300,000 in losses since this time last year, Australia’s consumer watchdog has warned.
The ACCC has said accommodation and rental scams are on the rise as Australians turn to virtual inspections in order to comply with restrictions.
ACCC’s Scamwatch has received 560 reports of rental scams in 2020 so far with many of them being related to COVID-19. To put that in perspective, that’s up 76 per cent from this time last year.
“Scammers are offering reduced rents due to COVID-19 and using the government restrictions to trick people into transferring money without inspecting the property,” Delia Rickard, ACCC’s Deputy Commissioner, said in a media release.
The watchdog found the scammers were targeting Australians, mostly in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, desperate to move amid restrictions. The scammers would post advertisements on real estate or classified websites, phish information through mock rental application forms, offer a false virtual inspection and then demand an upfront deposit or bond in return for the keys.
Once the victim showed up at the address, they would find it didn’t exist or was already occupied.
“The loss of personal information through rental scams is becoming more common, with scammers requesting copies of identity documents such as passports, bank statements or payslips,” Rickard said.
“Once a scammer has your personal information you are at risk of being targeted by further scams or identity theft.”
The signs of a rental scam
While virtual inspections are a handy way to view properties if restrictions prohibit it or make it unrealistic, it’s meant that scammers are exploiting the new system.
To avoid getting hit, the ACCC recommends doing your best to visit in person or to do a bit of extra research into the real estate company and whether the property has much of a history.
If the real estate company doesn’t exist or isn’t licensed, those are immediate red flags.
“Try to view a property in person before paying any bond or rent money to landlords or real estate agents,” Rickard said.
“In areas of Victoria under COVID-19 level 4 restrictions this is not possible, but you can help protect yourself by doing an online search to confirm the property exists and, if dealing with an agent, checking that the agent you are dealing with is licensed.”
But taking it a step further will only decrease your chances of being a scammer’s next target. You can also offer to call the agent to speak to them or arrange a video chat.
“Scammers often rely on email communications to avoid identification, do an independent search for a phone number and speak to the property manager over the phone or arrange a meeting in person,” Ms Rickard said.
“Before making any payments ensure you are dealing with the licensed agent, if a scammer has your details they may impersonate a real estate agent and attempt to ‘follow-up’ requesting money after an inspection.”