Consumer Protection’s WA ScamNet reported that it had received 40 rental scam reports to date, with 21 victims losing a total of $41,000.
The alarming numbers are higher than last year, when 48 reports of similar scams left 18 victims $32,320 out of pocket.
According to the watchdog, scammers are using social media accounts to post fake “ads for rent”, to which, unfortunately, desperate people are reacting.
But given the current state of the rental market in Western Australia, it’s easy to see where the discouragement of potential tenants is coming from.
The latest data from the Real Estate Institute for Western Australia (REIWA) showed statewide vacancy rates in July ranged from 1% to as low as 0%, a far cry from the vacancy rate of 2.5% to 3.5%. which the institute considers to be a balanced rental market.
WA ScamNet revealed that many victims react to fake advertisements on social media and are pressured into making hasty decisions, which often results in transferring money to secure a rental property without carrying out proper checks.
He added that transactions made via instant messages, emails or text messages could provide a blanket of anonymity to scammers, allowing them to provide false information.
To avoid falling victim to these scams, WA ScamNet reminded people looking for rentals to be careful when posting an ad, as scammers can also take advantage by responding.
Prospective tenants are also advised to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the landlord or his agent and not accept excuses so that they cannot physically attend.
Meanwhile, the watchdog has advised people looking for a rental home outside their area to arrange for someone they believe to be reliable to inspect the property on their behalf. Another way is to hire a local licensed real estate agent or property manager to act as their representative.
Acting Consumer Protection Executive Director Penny Lipscombe has warned that people targeted by fake social media accounts are also vulnerable to identity theft.
“When looking for a new rental property, tenants need to be careful who they deal with on social media. If their personal information gets into the wrong hands, it can be used to steal their identity,” Ms Lipscombe said.
She explained that social media users should be aware of the information they give out during these transactions, as people behind fake profiles may be able to use the data provided to commit future fraud.
“Suspicious fake profiles should always be reported to the social media platform as they are likely trying to target other people as well,” she said.
Private landlords, real estate agents and property managers are also urged by Consumer Protection to take steps that can reduce the risk of legitimate rental listings being hacked.
“While there is a widespread industry practice of watermarking photos of homes for rent, this appears to be used more as a marketing exercise than a cybersecurity measure,” Ms Lipscombe said.
But she noted that the watermark could deter scammers from using legitimate photos in fake advertising and encouraged all property owners and managers to embrace the practice.
She also offered another solution to prevent scammers from stealing photos. “Better yet, explore the possibility of preventing the downloading of photos from websites you use to market your properties, which would also serve as a deterrent against fraud,” she said.
Fraud reports can be filed on the WA ScamNet Website.