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Could renting a flat or apartment online lead to fraud?

By Sam Radbil on 21 Feb, 2019

The internet has opened up the world for many people, but unfortunately not all of them have your best interests at heart. While purchasing products and goods from sites like Amazon may be relatively safe, conducting business online with someone you don’t know can result in serious issues.

There are lots of sites where you can view rental properties and even apply to rent them online, but caution is necessary because scams are prevalent on less quality sites and you need to be aware of how unscrupulous and often fake landlords present themselves. Here are some common schemes to watch out for:

It’s not their apartment

Let’s say you go to a website and find a great property for rent. The price is under-market and the amenities are great. The location is perfect, and the landlord seems willing to accept your application without a lot of paperwork. All he wants is the first and last month’s rent along with a security deposit.

He wants the money transferred, however, because he says cheques are cumbersome. You think this is a little strange, but everything else looks so great you transfer the funds and on move-in day you find out that someone else is living at the property. Further investigation shows that the ‘landlord’ has nothing to do with the property. You’ve been scammed, and it’s very difficult if not impossible to retrieve transferred funds.

The landlord gets scammed

Check this out: A potential tenant contacts a landlord and agrees to rent an apartment. The renter needs to pay the landlord £4000 for rent and a security deposit. The renter overnights a cashier’s cheque to the landlord for £5000. The renter then emails the landlord and said his secretary wrote the cheque for the wrong amount, but since it was an error, requests that the landlord transfer just £900 back to the would-be tenant and keep £100 for his trouble.

The minute the landlord transfers the funds, the would-be tenant becomes unreachable, and the £5000 cashier’s cheque also eventually bounces. Since the landlord’s £900 has been transferred, it’s gone. This also illustrates a common problem with cashier’s cheques: they are easily counterfeited and may take weeks to bounce.

Fake property manager

Someone places an ad for an apartment for rent. You respond, and the ‘property manager’ agrees to meet you at the property. He explains that the current tenants have not moved out yet, but you’ll be first on the list if you fill out an application along with a £100 application fee.

The fake property manager takes you to a nearby café, claiming his office is being re-decorated, has you fill out an impressive-looking application form, and takes your £100. When you call to find out if your application was accepted, you reach a disconnected number. You then realise that this guy was not a real property manager.

More online danger

They key to your identity is your National Insurance number and you have to guard it carefully. You must provide it to banks when you are opening a checking account, and you have to give it to your employer. And, for a landlord to check your credit and credit score, your NI number is generally necessary.

Before you type that number in online, however, make sure that the company you are renting from is genuine, their site is secure, and find out who in the company will have access to your number. Also, do all you can to check if they are GDPR-compliant. Don’t be afraid to express security concerns as a reputable company should understand and have the correct answers for you.

Cheque accounts

It’s very logical, but do you realise that every time you give someone a personal cheque you have presented them with your bank sort code and your cheque account number? One utility company in the UK actually stopped taking sort codes/account numbers for payment as people were using stolen cheques to pay their utility bills. Here’s where online payments through a bank payment service, or even PayPal are more secure options. All it takes is one unscrupulous payment handler in the rental office to cause lots of trouble.

So the answer is unfortunately yes. Renting an apartment online can allow someone to steal your identity, but only if you aren’t being careful. Never give any information to someone you don’t trust, vet your landlord to ensure that they are legitimate, and protect your NI number.

Sam Radbil is the lead writer for ABODO Apartments, an online real estate and apartments marketplace.