Rental scammers target desperate tenants during COVID-19 pandemic
Multiple strangers have shown up to Poppy Melas’ home, ready to move in.
But there is one major problem — her family home for over three decades is not for rent.
Ms Melas’ Darwin address has been picked up by online scammers who are preying on desperate and distressed people during the COVID-19 pandemic housing squeeze, and national statistics show the situation is getting worse.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said rental scams increased by more than 32 per cent from 2019 to 2020.
For Ms Melas, that involved several people heading up her driveway and knocking on the door asking to inspect her property — including a single mother and a man with interstate number plates and a family in the car.
Ms Melas said the woman cried at her doorstep when she found out the property was not available.
“This poor lady, my heart went out to her,” she said.
“I couldn’t believe it, you read about it, you hear about it but you never think it’s going to happen to you.
“I was just very dumbfounded.”
The Facebook scam targeted people who had posted on online rental groups looking for accommodation.
They were messaged with an offer of a house for rent — with pictures and an address provided, as well as a lengthy explanation as to why the owner was interstate.
Subsequent messages would ask for personal details, as well as an initial payment, before keys would be mailed to the prospective tenant.
‘Innocent and vulnerable people’ being targeted
A spokesperson for the ACCC said the amount of money Australians were losing to rental scams had increased by over 66 per cent from 2019 to 2020.
The average loss was $2,288 per person in 2020, compared with $1,837 in 2019.
NT Police confirmed they have seen an increase in these types of rental scams, as Darwin’s property market continues to close up for prospective tenants.
“They appear to not be advertising the property of late, but are actually contacting persons directly after the victim advertises they are looking for a rental,” said Senior Constable Joel Smith.
“The offenders usually have a fairly ‘new’ looking Facebook profile, the house pictures often don’t actually match the house they are advertising and often have a back story of why they can’t be present to allow the victim to view the property.
“People have been buying online a lot more during COVID, there has unfortunately been an increase in rental scams, puppy scams, etcetera.”
NT Real Estate Institute chief executive Quentin Killian said the rental vacancy rate in the greater Darwin area was 2.7 per cent in the latest statistics, but there were expectations it would drop further.
Spend time searching, says ACCC
Ms Melas’ daughter Nomiki Kambourakis said she tracked down the Facebook profile of the person who was using her parent’s address for the scam and posted online to warn others.
“The amount of people that have commented saying they have been in contact with this guy and had been given out our address… it was a lot,” she said.
Ms Kambourakis found there had been posts using the same pictures, and the same account, advertising properties in Alice Springs, Victoria and New South Wales.
“Some people have definitely lost money,” she said.
“It sounds like it is targeting families and interstate people … they’ve moved up here and can’t get a house through a real estate agent because properties are being snatched up so quickly.
“It is really unfortunate that innocent and vulnerable people are being targeted in a time where they need somewhere to live.”
The ACCC said there were a number of things that prospective tenants should be wary of:
- Be wary of any property you are told you will be unable to view in person before handing over any bond or rent money, such as where the ad itself or a contact person states the property cannot be inspected as the landlord is overseas.
- Do an internet search of the exact wording of the rental advertisement. Scammers often reuse descriptions and searches may reveal previous scams.
- Check other sites to see if the property is advertised in multiple places but with different contact details. Scammers can steal photos and ads from legitimate real estates or rental sites.
- Make sure you are dealing with a licensed agent. Do an independent search for a phone number and speak to the property manager over the phone or arrange a meeting in person.
- The state consumer protection agency will be able to provide more information on bond requirements and tenants’ rights in your state.
Senior Constable Joel Smith said those who have been a victim of a scam, or believe a property advertisement may be a scam, can report it on cyber.gov.au or visit scamwatch.gov.au for further information.