Tenants have been warned to look for specific markings on rental ads to avoid falling prey to a scam that has fleeced tens of thousands of dollars from desperate property hunters.
Real estate agents and landlords in Western Australia are being urged by the state’s consumer watchdog to watermark photos on their listings as tenants suffer fraud in one of Australia’s tightest – and increasingly competitive – rental markets.
Rental rackets in WA are on the up.
Twenty-one Western Australians have lost $41,000 to rental scammers this year – last year, 18 victims were robbed of $32,320, according to WA ScamNet.
The current scam involves fake ads for real properties posted on social media.
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Fraudsters manage to remain anonymous via direct messages and emails with vulnerable house hunters.
Under-pressure tenants, navigating a ruthless Perth rental market, are making snap decisions without inspecting the address, and transfer bond and rent money to the scammer.
Watermarks of real estate agency names or logos are sometimes used for marketing purposes on property listing pictures.
However, WA’s Consumer Protection is encouraging more agencies and landlords to brand advertising photos as a security step, to prevent images being lifted and misused by criminals.
Perth’s rental market has tightened over the past 12 months, to sit at 0.5 per cent, according to Domain’s latest vacancy data.
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Property experts consider a healthy and balanced rental market to be one at 3 per cent vacancy, which provides choices for tenants and fair prices for landlords.
Perth is the second-tightest rental market in Australia behind Adelaide, which has a 0.2 per cent vacancy rate.
These figures contribute to a national vacancy rate of a record-low 0.9 per cent.
Penny Lipscombe, WA’s acting executive director for Consumer Protection, warned that rental ruse victims could also be prone to identity theft.
“Social media users need to be mindful of the information that they provide during these transactions as the people behind fake profiles may be able to extract data that allows them to commit future fraud,” Ms Lipscombe said in a statement.
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“Suspected fake profiles should always be reported to the social media platform, as they are likely attempting to target others too.”
Consumer Protection has suggested the property industry enact the simple anti-fraud measure.
“Watermarking may discourage scammers from using those photos in a fake ad, so I would encourage all property owners and managers to adopt this practice,” Ms Lipscombe said in the statement.
Rental scams have emerged over the past two years while tenants were unable to physically inspect homes due to pandemic restrictions.
But the increasingly low vacancy rate has lent new urgency and fears to the search.
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Prospective tenants are advised to have an in-person meeting with the owner or their leasing agent – without exception.
“When seeking a new rental property, tenants should be careful about who they deal with on social media – if their personal information falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to steal their identity,” Ms Lipscombe said.
“Social media users need to be mindful of the information that they provide during these transactions as the people behind fake profiles may be able to extract data that allows them to commit future fraud.”