‘Web of lies’: how scammers are taking advantage of Australia’s tight rental market

The ACCC received more than 658 reports about rental and accommodation scams last year, with a reported loss of $544,846

Like many, Aven was desperately looking for a house.

Last October, the 21-year-old was frantically applying for dozens of rental properties – attending inspections, putting in applications and becoming increasingly stressed by the string of rejections.

When a landlord they had messaged about a previous property got in contact again to say they knew someone looking for a tenant, Aven, who did not want their last name used, jumped at the offer.

“The message stated that it was a nice place, fully furnished, $250 a week and was available on the 24th of November,” Aven said. “I said I was interested and would like to rent the place.”

The scammer sent photos of the passport, ID and Medicare card of a man named Greg to “prove” his identity. He also sent over videos of the apartment at Napier Street, Fitzroy, making it feel legitimate.

“After I agreed I wanted the place he asked me to sign a rental agreement, provide my identification documents and pay $2,000 for bond and first-month rent,” Aven said.

“I sent him the money on that day as he stated there was a time limit to my application and there were other potential tenants who were interested in the place.

“After I sent the money, contact seemed to halt. ‘Greg’ would take days, if not weeks, to respond to my questions about the place.”

Aven had recently moved to Melbourne from New South Wales, they were working part-time in a bar away from their family, and had little experience in renting their own place. On the day Aven was set to move in, “Greg” told them there was a mould issue, and asked them for more money. Aven realised they had been scammed.

“The scammer took all of my savings – I only had around $400 in my bank account left, making me feel extremely unsafe and financially unstable,” Aven said.

“I kept thinking ‘how could I be so stupid to fall for this web of lies?’ I really beat myself internally for a while. I wasn’t even angry at the scammer at first – just myself for being so thoughtless.”

With national vacancies at 2%, scammers are taking advantage of Australia’s rental crisis, targeting those desperate to find a home.

The scam attached to the apartment in Fitzroy had been running for around two years, said Russell Adams, the managing director at Ray White Bundoora, who had legitimately managed the property.

“It’s happened around five times that I know of,” Adams said. “Apparently, it’s a video of a unit that is similar.

“Everyone pays the rent in advance. He just scams and keeps going.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission received more than 658 reports to Scamwatch about rental and accommodation scams last year, with a reported loss of $544,846.

“Reports to Scamwatch indicate that more people lost money to rental and accommodation scams in 2022 than in 2021,” a spokesperson said.

The chief executive of the NSW Tenants Union, Leo Patterson Ross, said the group was seeing an increase in renters who had been scammed.

“We are seeing an increase of people putting in applications for places [that haven’t been] listed,” he said. “They have to apply for anything that moves and that enables this sort of scam to thrive.

“This will continue to be an issue. Ultimately the best fix is a landlord registration system, which means when you see an advert the landlord has to show their verification, and you can check if they are legitimate.”

The most common rental scam involved getting victims to send a deposit before inspecting the property.

Another involves scammers asking individuals to fill out tenancy applications, complete with ID, so they can impersonate the victims.

The executive director of Better Renting, ​​Joel Dignam, said rent scams were becoming more sophisticated.

“They find real advertisements and copy the photos, or they can hire an Airbnb and take their own photos,” he said.

“It’s going to keep happening is the sad answer, and it’s happening more as people are more desperate.”


Cait Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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