Australians have lost over $300,000 to rental and accommodation scams this year, an increase of 76 per cent compared to the same time last year.
Scamwatch has received 560 reports of rental scams so far this year, an increase of 56 per cent, with many using tactics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These scams target people seeking new rental accommodation by offering fake rental properties to convince people into handing over money or personal information.
“Scammers are offering reduced rents due to COVID-19 and using the government restrictions to trick people into transferring money without inspecting the property,” ACCC Deputy Commissioner Delia Rickard said.
The scammer will post advertisements on real estate or classified websites or target people who have posted on social media that they are looking for a room.
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’, promising to provide the keys after the payment or information is provided.
The scammer may come up with excuses for further payments and the victim often only realises they have been scammed when the keys don’t arrive and the scammer cuts off contact.
Some scammers will even impersonate real estate agents and organise fake inspections, victims will then arrive to discover the property doesn’t exist or is currently 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,” Ms Rickard said.
“Once a scammer has your personal information you are at risk of being targeted by further scams or identity theft.”
“Many people are also experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic and the financial impact of falling victim to a scam can be devastating,” Ms Rickard said.
People aged 25–34 reported the most rental scams so far in 2020, and the most reports came from NSW, VIC and the ACT.
A common rental scam operating in Canberra involves a scammer impersonating a doctor living in Sweden who only offers virtual inspections and then requests bond money.
“Try to view a property in person before paying any bond or rent money to landlords or real estate agents,” Ms 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.”
“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.”
Potential renters can contact their state consumer protection agency for information on bond requirements and tenants’ rights in their state.