Leading fraud expert warns of ‘perfect storm’ facing students being duped into handing over deposits to fraudsters posing as landlords

Robert Brooker, Head of Fraud at PKF Geoffrey Martin and Chair of the London Fraud Forum is warning students starting or returning to university this month to be on the lookout for fraudsters.

This year, the treble whammy of last-minute A-level grade changes, uncertainty of University openings and lockdown meaning students and their parents have not been able to view properties in person has created the perfect storm for fraudsters to take advantage.

Students are more frequently turning to the web to find properties to rent during their study, but some fall prey to fraudulent adverts by which, when students enquire about the property, they are asked for proof they can afford the rent. The fraudulent landlords who post the adverts require prospective tenants to transfer money as holding deposits without visiting the property, or to prove they have money in order to rent by transferring money to a friend and sending proof. Fraudulent adverts most often appear on free advertising sites as there is no cost to advertise the fake property. Rental fraud reports indicate that £22 million has been lost to rental fraud in the last four years.

Rober Brooker, Head of Fraud at PKF Geoffrey Martin & Co said: “Unfortunately, panic creates pandemonium and unscrupulous landlords are preying on this. The easiest way to avoid being victim to these scammers is to use your common sense. My advice would be to do your research: go through a reputable letting agency where possible and always ask for references when doing a private rental. If the property looks too good to be true, it probably is!”

Follow these top tips to avoid losing out:

Never pay a ‘holding deposit’, rent or any money without visiting a property (where Covid restrictions allow). Satisfy yourself that the landlord is legitimate and has rights to rent the property and take a friend.

Avoid paying money online. The safest way is to make a payment at a letting agents office. A formal contract should be signed before any money changes hands.

Make sure the advert looks legitimate: avoid adverts with no photographs of the property or where multiple adverts have the same photographs.

Check the contact details: Look for telephone numbers that are based in the UK. And check that landline numbers work.

Protect your deposit: Where a deposit is taken other than a ‘holding deposit’, the money must be paid into a deposit scheme approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Ask for evidence of this.

Fraudsters are also getting smarter and more creative and scams are getting more complex. Scammers access social media accounts to learn personal details so they appear more legitimate.

Some fraudsters specifically target international students, calling them and pretending to be from a legitimate organisation (such as the UK Home Office or their university). They demand money (calling it a “fine” for a non-existent immigration problem) and claim that if you do not pay them quickly there will be damaging consequences (for example, deportation or cancelling your visa).

Robert Brooker added: “Whenever you receive a telephone call, email or social media request from someone you do not know, remember it could be a scam. Criminals use all kinds of ways to trick you into paying them money or giving them valuable information about yourself. Do not make any payment until you have verified that it is legitimate. Students should also be aware of how much information they share online and keep personal data secure to avoid being a victim of identity fraud.