Mention rental scams, and you could be forgiven for thinking that tenants are usually the victims (e.g. paying a deposit to a fake landlord). But did you know that landlords in Singapore are the targets of scammers posing as legit tenants? For those of us who are renting out your property or thinking of doing so, we’ve compiled a list of rental scams that landlords of residential properties need to watch out for.
The phishing scam
This is fairly recent in Singapore, and is a phishing attack in the guise of a rental request. With this rental scam, the tenant insists on paying you first. They’ll claim they want to transfer their security deposit, or the first month’s rent, but can only do so via services like PayPal.
Later, they’ll ask for your account details, as well as your name, NRIC number, address etc. This is sufficient information for them to hack your account. Not all of them are just after the funds in your wallet either; some of them will use your hijacked account to launder money.
This year, several Singaporean landlords have reported being targeted for such a scam on anti-scam site scamalert.sg, citing the name the scammer used as Tan Mui Joo.
As a rule, never trust a tenant who’s eager to pay before even viewing the property.
The landlord and subtenant scam
This is one of the most vicious rental scams a so-called tenant can pull, because it affects an innocent third party.
This scammer starts off appearing a good tenant who pays rent on time for the first few months. They may even put down an unusually big amount at the start, such as three months’ rent. After the first three months however, you’ll notice there’s no more money coming in.
And, when you visit your property, you’ll find it inhabited by a total stranger. This stranger has been tricked into thinking your tenant is the landlord, and has been paying the rent money to your tenant.
By the time you find out, the tenant has usually left the country.
This rental scam is especially painful if the third party is vulnerable (e.g. a single parent, or a foreign worker who desperately needs the funds). You won’t feel good evicting them, but they probably can’t afford to pay you after already paying your criminal “tenant” rent in advance.
To prevent this, always make appointments to check on the property every few months. If you’re renting out a condo, get to know the neighbours and the security guards; they can be the first to tip you off if something is wrong. Some condos also let residents install a CCTV camera outside their units.
The Singapore Police Force has put up crime advisories to warn against these scams – but as many “subtenant” victims are foreigners, they may not get the message until it’s too late.
We suggest introducing any confirmed tenants to your neighbour; this suggests to them that there’s another pair of eyes on them.
The short-term lease scam
This is similar to Scam #2, except in this case, the scammer “short-leases” your property illegally. This is most popularly done through sites such as Airbnb. At prices of around $120 a night, a tenant can shave substantial amounts off their rent, by having illegal guests stay over.
Because these short stayers are only around for a few days, it’s easy for them to make the excuse that they have visiting friends. Also, your tenant is still there most of the time, so even the neighbours may not notice anything strange.
As the landlord who has rented out an apartment, make it a point to visit websites like Airbnb to check whether your home is listed, or Google your address from time to time. That’s how you can find out if your tenant is illegally letting out your place on short-lease basis.
The illegal stash scam
This is when criminals use your house as a storage space.
The tenant will pay the rent on time, and doesn’t cause any trouble. They’re quiet all the time. In fact, they may be too quiet. Neighbours may notice the lights are off all the time, or that they seldom see the tenant come in and out except at odd hours.
There’s a chance the tenant is using your property as an illegal stash house. They can’t store their unlicensed cigarettes, pirated DVDs, narcotics, etc. in any old warehouse; so the next best option is to rent in a quiet residential area, and keep the stuff in the closets. The rental cost is peanuts, compared to their criminal proceeds.
Again, the best defence is to visit the tenant periodically. The easiest way is to make it clear in your Tenancy Agreement that the landlord is entitled to enter the premises every three months for maintenance work (e.g. air-con cleaning). Of course, the tenant might hide the stuff when you arrive, but they may decide to move, and find a less discerning landlord.
The brothel scam
This is the one we love to giggle at in the news. But it really does happen, and it’s not restricted to the heartlands.
The rental scam is perpetuated by pimps, who rotate various women in and out of the house. Clients of the prostitutes are invited into the property, which is a major problem; a furnished property may be damaged by the clients, or items are sometimes stolen. And if there’s an altercation (e.g. assault), you could be dealing with a police investigation that you really don’t need.
Remember that, even if you’re eventually cleared, the police will have to look into your details. (They’ll need to ensure you’re not in cahoots with with the pimp). This can cause undue stress and worry.
This scam mainly happens in heartland areas, but don’t assume it won’t happen in a condo. Prostitution rings will use any location with lax security, and a high degree of anonymity.
Again, clauses in your Tenancy Agreement that specify the need to periodically enter the premises for maintenance work could help prevent this, as with being on good, communicative terms with your neighbours who can keep a lookout for you.
The hit-and-run scam
This is a tenant who can’t afford to pay you throughout the entire lease — and knows it. They may have enough for the deposit and advance, and perhaps half a year of rent. But they’ll sign a year’s lease for a fancy property (like your District 9 condo), knowing full well they’ll stop paying beyond a certain point.
These tenants have different motives — some just want to live in a luxury area for a while, and then run. The more nefarious ones are running some kind of scam, like a fake investment scheme. They’ll rent prestigious addresses for credibility, with no intent to stay beyond a few months.
These tenants will usually start giving you late payments after three or four months, and their excuses will pile up. By the time you take action, they’ll owe you one to two months’ of back rent; but the house will be empty when you show up.
A good way to prevent this is to verify the tenant’s occupation by asking for his/her name card at the viewing. You can then Google his online presence (possible even with just the tenant’s email address) or give his company a call to verify that he/she is indeed working there.
To avoid being the victim of rental scams, get an agent to screen the tenant.
Most of these can be prevented by having a good property agent representing you, the landlord. Property agents registered with the Council of Estate Agencies (CEA) are obliged to perform basic background checks on prospective tenants. They may also have experience in spotting the warning signs of a bad tenant or a potential scammer. Sure, you might need to pay a one or two month agent’s commission, but a peace of mind is surely worth more than that.
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If you found this article helpful, 99.co recommends 99.co Guide: Breaking lease and early termination of Tenancy Agreement and 9 reasons why renting out to student tenants is best for landlords
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