Protect yourself against cybercrime when conducting rental property transactions

Protect yourself against cybercrime when conducting rental property transactions

MAIN IMAGE: Jacqui Savage, national rentals manager for the Rawson Property Group

Sandhya Nankoo

Tough economic times invariably see a rise in opportunistic crime, and this year has been no exception. According to Jacqui Savage, national rentals manager for the Rawson Property Group, cybercrime has increased in frequency and sophistication, especially in the rental market, by tricking many unwary prospective tenants out of their security deposit.

“Rentals aren’t cheap these days, and with deposits sitting at two or even three month’s rent in some cases, these scammers are walking away with tens of thousands of rand,” she says. “For most of us, that kind of financial loss would be devastating, which is why it’s so important to double-check every detail before handing over a cent of your hard-earned money.” While there is no single telltale sign of a rental con artist, Savage says asking these questions while going through the rental process should help you spot the red flags in time to avoid an expensive mistake.

Are the contact details legit?

“With so much information now available online, it’s become straightforward for scammers to impersonate legitimate rental agents with legitimate online listings,” says Savage. “The branding, the images, the descriptions – they’ll all look completely legit.” The one thing scammers can’t duplicate exactly is the rental agent’s contact details, as they want prospective tenants to contact them instead. “Check on Google to make sure the agent’s publicly listed contact details match those on the listing or even call the rental agency to verify the agent”, says Savage. “If they don’t match, the listing is almost certainly fraudulent and should either be reported or left very well alone.”

Is the agent certified with the PPRA?

Savage also recommends verifying the rental agent’s professional certification. She says this serves two purposes: first, as confirmation that they are who they say they are, and second, that they are properly qualified to handle your rental transaction. “Ask for the agent’s Fidelity Fund Certificate number and then look them up on the Property Practitioner’s Regulatory Authority website,” she says. “If you can’t find them there if their FFC is invalid, or if any of the details differ from those you’ve been provided, I would ask some grave questions about their legitimacy.”

Are they using professional communication channels?

While some rental agents will use messaging platforms like WhatsApp to discuss a rental property or arrange meetings, Savage says no legitimate rental agreement should ever be concluded via WhatsApp. 

“Rental agreements and deposit details should always be emailed from a legitimate business email address or concluded in person in a professional setting,” she says. “I would be extremely suspicious of anyone asking for personal details, like your bank account or ID number, or requesting any payments via WhatsApp.”

If you’re feeling unsure, Savage says no genuine agent will mind being asked to resend details from a verifiable professional email address.

Have you been able to view the property correctly?

Faking an online listing may be relatively easy, but it’s dramatically more difficult to fake an entire property. As such, Savage says it’s important to always view a rental property in person before handing over any money.

“If you’re moving across the country and can’t visit the property in person, ask for a live walkthrough video-call with the agent or get a family member or friend to view the property on your behalf,” she says. “This lets you confirm that what you see is what you get and proves that the agent has access to the property in question.”
Any excuses about why the property can’t be shown – lost keys, difficult tenant, etc. – are warning signs that all may not be what it seems.

Are you feeling overly pressured?

Another telltale sign of a potential scammer is pressuring prospective tenants into paying a deposit early to avoid “losing out to the competition”. While Savage acknowledges that certain rental properties move quickly and tenants need to be ready to roll on a moment’s notice, she says genuine agents will never ask for a deposit before the lease agreement has been signed. “You may need to fill out your lease application with urgency, but your deposit only becomes due once that application has been accepted and the lease agreement is signed,” she says. “Being asked to do differently is a big red flag.”

What about private landlords?

Unfortunately for tenants, it’s much more challenging to verify the details of a private landlord. Savage suggests asking for proof that they are, in fact, the registered property owners, as well as insisting on a copy of all lease documentation, including a receipt for your deposit.

What about tenants scamming landlords?

Landlords aren’t immune to scammers, either, with many losing several months – if not years – worth of rent to talented con artists. “We’re seeing all kinds of clever scam attempts, from faked bank statements to illegal subletting,” she says. “The trouble is that once a defaulting and troublesome tenant is placed in a property, removing them becomes very difficult and time-consuming. That makes the vetting process critical and always better handled by a professional with the tools and experience to spot a dodgy applicant behind even the most convincing disguise.”

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