Friday, 28 February 2014

Consumers caught out as number of rogue letting agents gets hire!

In the week that saw the lowest level of home owners in 25 years with the rapid increase in rental, particularly in the private sector, the BBC were investigating consumer fraud involving letting agents. The BBC Newsbeat team sent Freedom of Information requests to Trading Standards teams across the country asking about complaints regarding lettings of flats and houses. Their findings uncovered a number of complaints, around three quarters received by the Trading Standards Officers, that were not followed up and it would seem that the problem of rogue letting agents is on the increase.

Radio 4 You and Yours consumer programme spoke to a single mother who had visited a property to rent with a letting agent and in good faith handed over £2,500 she struggled to get, for a deposit and two months’ rent. The day before she was due to move in with her children, the supposed letting agent started to make a number of stalling excuses. Suffice to say, she did not get the flat and her money has gone along with a dream of finding a decent home in which to bring up her children.

Bidding war on rental deposits led to prosecution for fraud

You and Yours interviewed a Trading Standards Officer from Barking and Dagenham who had received a complaint about a lettings agent and followed this through. They soon found out they were dealing with fraud and in one case, discovered six families who had all, unknowingly, paid £3,000 each for a deposit on the same property. Fortunately the rogue trader involved, was prosecuted for fraud and is now serving a three year prison sentence. The Barking and Dagenham Trading Standards Officer has seen an increase in this type of fraud, particularly around the London area, where several families could be involved, unwittingly, in a bidding war when it comes to the deposit for a rental property.

Legislation due to change but still does not fully cover the consumer

There will be a change shortly in the law that will offer consumers additional protection but it still does not go far enough. Soon all letting agents will have to become a member of a “redress” scheme but if they don’t join, at the moment it is not a criminal offence. For better consumer protection and confidence in the lettings industry, then the penalties of not joining a redress scheme, needs to be more severe. Otherwise, as renting property becomes the norm for those who cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, we could be hearing about more and more people getting ripped off.

In the meantime, the advice for consumers who are starting out looking at renting is first of all check to make sure the letting agent you use is part of a redress scheme. These can be the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors or the Property Ombudsman Service for example, and the next important step is to find out exactly who the landlord is that owns the property. If you go on line and carry out a land registry search this will cost you £3 which will be money well worth spending. Finally the old adage, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is so if the rent is lower than you would expect for the area or the flat or house you are looking at, then just be wary.

If you have had a problem with a rogue letting agent or even reported a problem to Trading Standards that has not been followed up, let us know – we’re listening!


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