Virtual inspection trap triggers warning

The consumer watchdog is warning of an increase in rental and accommodation scams, with more than $300,000 lost to fraudulent activities this year alone.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), scammers are targeting anyone seeking new rental accommodation by offering fake rental properties and using tactics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Scammers are offering reduced rents due to COVID-19 and using government restrictions to trick people into transferring money without inspecting the property,” ACCC deputy commissioner Delia Rickard said.

Scammers will post advertisements on real estate or classified websites, as well as targeting people on social media who may have posted that they are looking for a room to rent or accommodation.

The consumer watchdog has outlined that after the victim responds, the scammer will request an upfront deposit to secure the property or phish for personal information through a "tenant application form”, and promising to provide keys after the payment or information is provided.

It warned that the scammer may come up with excuses for further payments, with potential victims often only realising they have been scammed when the keys don’t arrive and the scammer cuts off contact.

So far, Australians have lost more than $300,000 to such scams in 2020 from 560 reported incidents, according to Scamwatch, with total scams up 56 percent and monetary losses up 76 percent this year to date compared with 2019.

According to the ACCC, some scammers are even impersonating real estate agents and organising fake inspections.

Ms. Rickard said more commonly, this type of scam is leading to the loss of personal information, with scammers requesting copies of identity documents such as passports, bank statements, or payslips.

"Once a scammer has your personal information, you are at risk of being targeted by further scams or identity theft,” she warned.

The deputy commissioner acknowledged that with so many individuals already struggling with financial difficulties due to the pandemic, "the financial impact of falling victim to a scam can be devastating”.

The virtual inspection fallacy

The ACCC has said one "common scam” sees a scammer only offering virtual inspections and then requesting bond money.

Ms. Rickard advised potential renters to "try to view a property in person before paying any bond or rent money to landlords or real estate agents”.

For Victorian areas where COVID-19 level 4 restrictions mean this is not possible, the deputy commissioner said you can still help protect yourself by doing an online search to confirm the property exists and, if dealing with an agent, check that the agent you are dealing with is licensed.

"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,” she explained.

"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.”

In addition, the watchdog noted that potential renters can contact their state consumer protection agency for information on bond requirements and tenants’ rights in their state.

The ACCC is urging anyone who suspects they are a victim of a rental scam to act quickly to reduce the risk of financial loss or other damages.

They should contact their bank as soon as possible, and where relevant, contact the platform on which they were scammed.

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Jason Gwerder
Monday, 28 September 2020

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