The competition watchdog has called for increased consumer vigilance amid a 76 per cent surge in rental and accommodation scams.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), rental and accommodation scammers have stolen over $300,000 from unsuspecting Australians over the course of 2020, up 76 per cent compared with 2019.
The ACCC also pointed to complaints volumes registered by Scamwatch, which has received 560 reports of rental scams so far in 2020, an increase of 56 per cent.
Scamwatch revealed that many of the reported complaints involve manipulation related to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The ACCC stated that the scams have targeted people seeking new rental accommodation by offering fake rental properties before requesting funds 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 scammers have posted advertisements on real estate or classified websites and have also targeted people on social media who have declared their interest in securing rental accommodation.
The scammers then request an upfront deposit to secure the property or “phish” for personal information through a tenant application form before promising to provide the keys after the payment or information is provided.
In some cases, scammers have impersonated real estate agents, arranging fake inspections.
“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 added.
“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.
According to the ACCC, most scam victims are between the ages of 25-34, with most reports coming from NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
“Try to view a property in person before paying any bond or rent money to landlords or real estate agents,” Ms Rickard advised.
“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 Richard concluded: “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.”
The COVID-19 crisis has shaken up the rental market, with widespread job losses and broader economic uncertainty spurring a rise in vacancies.
Inner-city rental markets have been hit hardest by the crisis, with trends indicating that inner-city rents have fallen faster than in outer suburban locations.
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