Australian state and federal consumer protection agencies have urged Australians to be cautious about handing over their money after a handful of fake rental property ads on Facebook left some without a home.
Western Australia’s Consumer Protection issued a recent warning saying tenants had lost thousands of dollars after falling victim to advertisements on Facebook Marketplace that turned out to be illegitimate.
This year so far, the agency has received 18 reports of the rental scams, with five people losing $7,200.
In one instance, a mother and her four children were left homeless and $3,600 out-of-pocket after a scammer advertised a fake Clarkson property on Facebook Marketplace.
The mother never met the fake landlord and didn’t view the property, but had driven past it previously. But on the agreed move-in date, the keys were nowhere to be found and the home was already occupied by tenants who had an agreement with the real property agent.
In another instance, a young mother and child was forced to move back in with her mother after responding to a Facebook Marketplace ad and handing over $1,800 in a bond payment that didn’t turn out to be legitimate.
The mother never inspected the property, and the Marketplace ad and fake landlord email address was deleted as soon as a payment was made for a property in Piara Waters.
WA Commissioner for Consumer Protection Lanie Chopping said consumers should never send money for properties that haven’t been inspected.
“Responding to online classified ads or social media posts is very risky, so prospective tenants need to at least view the property and meet the landlord or their agent before handing over any money,” Chopping said.
The scammers may create an excuse to avoid showing victims the property and claim they’re overseas or interstate, but will leave tenants the keys in a hidden spot outside once bond and rent are paid in advance.
They could also claim there are tenants currently living in the home and ask prospective to do a drive-by inspection, as well as ask for identification documents that could expose people to identity theft, she added.
“These heartless scammers are exploiting the desperation of tenants who may face being homeless unless they can secure a rental and the victims can least afford to lose money to fraudsters.
“To be safe, we would recommend people considering renting properties unseen to go through a licensed real estate or property management agency rather than responding to online ads. That way they can be assured the property being offered is a genuine rental.”
Homelessness Australia chair Jenny Smith told Yahoo Finance that the recent cuts to JobSeeker and rising rent in certain locations had exacerbated housing affordability for families on low incomes.
“The shortfall of social housing of 431,000 dwellings nationally, means there is effectively no alternative to renting privately for people struggling with affordability,” she said.
People are so desperate to find a home that they are vulnerable to these scammers, Smith added. She called for the Federal Government to increase the Commonwealth Rent Assistance and the JobSeeker rate, as well as greater investment in social housing.
“That way, they won’t need to turn to Facebook Marketplace to find one.”
How to protect yourself
Don’t hand over any bond or rent money until you’ve inspected the property in person, an ACCC spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.
And you should be wary if the landlord or the advertisement states that the property can’t be inspected because the landlord is overseas.
Also, a quick Google search can go a long way.
“Do an internet search of the exact wording of the rental advertisement. Scammers often reuse descriptions and searches may reveal previous scams,” the ACCC spokesperson said.
You should also check other rental sites to see if the property has been advertised on other platforms, but with different contact details, as scammers steal photos and ads from genuine rental sites.
Individuals should also double-check that they’re dealing with a licensed agent, and speak to the property manager over the phone or meet in person.
Renters can get in touch with their state’s tenant association for further assistance.