4 tips to help you spot a rental property scam

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This article was updated on 23 December 2018.

Online scams have now extended to real estate too. Not all rental listings are legitimate. I should know – I almost fell prey to one.

The year-end is usually a popular time for urbanites to be hunting for a rental property. Many of us let work and life get in the way and well, we tend to put off looking for a new place until the very last minute. Similarly, around this time last year, I was in a terrible tizzy as I only have a few weeks to look for a new place before my current lease ends in December.

It was a pretty stressful experience considering my specific requirements. Living near the city centre is a must as I work in Mid Valley and depend on ride-sharing and public transportation to get around. And looking for an affordable unit in KL can be a daunting task – from searching through endless listings to attending unit viewings.

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As I was looking for either a master-room or studio unit (more affordable that way), I had to extend my search beyond property portals to third-party sites advertising room rental listings.

So when I came across an online listing that advertised for an attractively priced unit in a prime location, fronting a KTM station no less, I was over the moon. However, as desperate as I was, I sensed that something doesn’t smell quite right.

After speaking to the lady who advertised for this ‘affordable’ unit, I was asked to transfer some money to her account. Alarm bells went off – this is obviously not the usual practice. So I decided to probe into this matter further and conduct some due diligence. And I was right, it was a scam.

Anyway, to cut the long story short, my sordid experience has inspired me to share some tips for other rental property hunters out there. Let me guide you through the red flags you should watch out for when researching the legitimacy of a potential rental listing:

#1 The deal sounds too good to be true 

I almost got scammed! - Here''s 4 steps to spot a rental con

The typical scenario will be where the rental sum is significantly less than similar units in the building or nearby properties. When further questioned, the ‘landlord’ will, of course, reason this with some story and try to rein you in with an explanation.

In my case, the listing I came across for a studio unit was going for half the price (RM800) as compared to other similar units in the building (RM1,500-RM1,800). Of course, I was immediately doubtful with the super-discounted price and my ‘scam alert’ button was already triggered. But after scrolling down the listing, I discovered an extensive explanation for the discounted pricing!

The owner, Miss A, explained that she and her hubby own 5 studio units in the apartment building in Kuala Lumpur and have been leasing them out on Airbnb for a few years. This appeared believable as the apartment, Regalia Residences is famous for being an expat residential hotspot. Miss A elaborated that she and her hubby are planning to migrate to Europe and are looking to rent out their units urgently.

Hence they are willing to rent it out for half the price as long they can secure a long-term tenant.

Screenshot from the author’s actual Whatsapp conversation.

2. The owner tries to put off meeting you in person

Upon registering interest, the ‘landlord’ will come up with an excuse – he or she is either out of the country, away on vacation, etc and puts off showing the unit in person.

Always meet the landlord or registered real estate agent first at the unit. If they are unable to do so, regardless how convincing they sound, then it most probably a scam.

Also, watch out for ‘dodgy’ assurances – Note how Miss A went on to declare that there are no hidden charges, without me questioning anything at this point of the conversation.

3. NEVER transfer money online 

A legitimate landlord will not ask you for a ‘booking’ fee or any form of payment even before you have viewed the actual unit.

In my case, Miss A agreed to meet me sometime later that week and assured me that she will get back to me with the exact date and time for my viewing appointment. After confirming the date from me, she immediately made her ‘move’:

#4 Channel your inner ‘Nancy Drew’ with some online research 

As Miss A requested for a booking fee even before the actual viewing, I knew I was dealing with a crook. Confirming your instinct can be as simple as conducting a search online. I proceeded to Google her full name (which was provided in the listing). The first result that popped up was the FB page of this local businesswoman, Miss B who owns a Muslimah wear line. She even had a blog showcasing her business’s success and detailing her frequent trips overseas!

Taking it a step further, I saved her WhatsApp image and conducted a reverse image search on Google. To my surprise, it belongs to someone else, another famous Instagrammer and social influencer, a Miss Nadia. Note that the Instagram image below is the same one used by Miss A as her Whatsapp contact image.

So there you have it. Spending some time to do a bit of due diligence could save you a whole lot of trouble.

Be especially vigilant as online fraud is growing at an alarming rate

Khalil Adis, Founder of Khalil Adis Consultancy can attest to this.

In an interview he had in 2017 with ASP Che Harun from the Commercial Crime Investigation Department (CCID), Subang Jaya Police Headquarters; the police shared that online scam cases have been on an uptick. The modus operandi involves buyers transferring money to the sellers’ account. However, the goods will not be delivered.

Khalil Adis, Founder of Khalil Adis Consultancy.

In this digital age, where anyone can be a ‘seller’ online, consumers must be very careful when shopping online. In my case, a RM400 ‘booking fee’ might not be much, but it is still hard-earned money. Remember to not let your emotions rule when deciding on purchasing decisions and spend that extra 10-20 minutes to carry out some research. Should you suspect that an online ad is not legit, make sure to flag the listing or contact the website where the ad is posted to report its fraudulence.

Happy property hunting and be careful!

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