Students warned as £22m lost in rental fraud

PA

Students and other tenants are being warned to spot the signs of rental fraud when searching for a property, as figures showed victims of the crime reported losing more than £22 million over a four-year period.

Between April 1 2014 and March 31 2018, victims reported losing a total of £22,103,940 to rental fraud - an average of £1,396 per victim.

A spike in incidents is often seen during July and August, when people are looking to rent holiday accommodation.

The figures were released by Action Fraud, the UK's national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre.

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Rental fraud happens when prospective tenants are tricked into paying an up-front fee to rent a property - which they then lose as well as being unable to rent the home they thought they had secured.

In reality, the property does not exist, has already been rented out, or has been rented to multiple victims at the same time.

Action Fraud is warning potential tenants - and students in particular - to spot the signs of rental fraud.

It said that in 429 cases, victims reported losing £5,000 or more.

Fraudsters will often make contact with their victims online. The adverts will seem genuine and are often accompanied by photos and contact information.

In some cases the victim will view the property in person, but in most cases the payment is made without prior viewing.

Fraudsters will often target college and university students ahead of the new term, taking advantage of the huge demand to collect fees up-front to secure a deposit, Action Fraud said.

Between April 2014 and March 2018, 930 reports of university-related rental fraud, with losses of £1,103,416, were made to Action Fraud - with reports tending to peak in September when students are likely to be organising their accommodation for the academic year.

The true scale of rental fraud relating to students is believed to be higher, as the figure is dependent on victims making their student status known when reporting to Action Fraud.

Pauline Smith, director of Action Fraud, said: "Whether you're booking a well-earned holiday or looking to secure university accommodation, it's important to be wary of devious fraudsters who are looking to take your money.

"The impact of rental fraud can be severe, both emotionally and financially.

"By taking simple steps such as visiting the property you intend to rent or checking that the owner is on an approved accommodation list, you will be able to protect yourself from this type of fraud.

"If you think you have been a victim of rental fraud, contact Action Fraud."

Here are some tips from Action Fraud for protecting yourself against rental fraud:

1. Visit the property before you pay. Watch-out for adverts with no photos, or where multiple adverts have the same photos as they could be fake. Do not pay any money until you or a reliable contact has visited the property with an agent or the landlord.

2. Be cautious about how you send money. If someone is making a payment, Action Fraud said they should consider making it by a credit card in person at the letting agent's office. Be sceptical if you are asked to transfer money via a money transfer service.

3. Do not be pressured into transferring large sums of money. Under no circumstances would a genuine bank or another trusted organisation force you to make a financial transaction on the spot.

4. Check that the owner is on an approved accommodation list. Check with your student union or accommodation office as many universities and colleges will have an approved housing list. Also look for accreditation membership such as the National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) or Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA).

If you have been a victim of fraud or cyber crime, report it to Action Fraud online or by calling 0300 123 2040.