An agent has warned of the rise of brazen fraudsters who effectively steal empty properties, by breaking into them and then letting them out.
Sometimes ‘tenants’ move in but on other occasions several would-be tenants apply for the same properties and hand over deposits – money which they never see again.
The agent has warned others to be aware of the increasingly prevalent problem – and told how one fraudster even stole his identity to pretend to be an agent.
John Williams, an associate director at Outlook Property with six branches across east London, was a witness for the prosecution in the latest case.
As we reported on EYE yesterday, Zhaker Darvesh was jailed this week after advertising different flats on Gumtree and taking deposits from six victims.
Darvesh had worked briefly for Outlook Property as a sales negotiator and one of the properties involved in the court case was being marketed for sale with the agency.
Williams said: “A few days before we discovered what had happened, he left without notice – he simply didn’t turn up for work, citing a family problem, but we never saw him again.
“On a viewing we found the property had a tenant living in it who had dealt with someone via a mobile phone number that we knew he had used.
“We put two and two together, realised he must have used our keys, and called the police.”
Astonishingly, this was the fourth time that Outlook Property as an agency has had this type of problem – although it involved one of its employees on only this one occasion.
And in a fifth incident, a scammer actually pretended to be Williams himself, offering the same property to rent to four different people who each paid around £1,000 in deposits.
The conman went to the trouble of not only calling himself John Williams, but using a corporate-seeming email address in his name, and importing the company logo and branding to make it look authentic. All text messages and phone calls also purported to come from John Williams.
Williams (the real one) said: “The first I knew of it was when a woman phoned me up to ask about the keys to the flat she was about to rent. I had no knowledge of the property and asked who she had been dealing with.
“She said: ‘You’.
“I took three other phone calls like it.”
The first time that the agency became aware of the problem was on a viewing of a sales property, where a tenant was discovered in situ.
In the second case, the property had already been exchanged on. The buyer happened to drive past the property to show it off to a friend and saw lights on.
The next day two Romanian families with little English were found by Williams living in the property.
Police were called and Williams said: “They were very unsympathetic. I told them that the tenants were victims but the police gave them half an hour to get out. I had been worrying about how I was going to get the property back for the vendor but there were these families left standing on the pavement.”
In the third case, a seller found that her property had people living in it illegally.
Surprisingly, the seller was sympathetic to their plight and dealt with the problem by signing a legal tenancy agreement with them.
The fourth case – that of Zhaker Darvesh – was the first where the police have apparently been able to act, with the Crown Prosecution Service publicising the case on its website.
Williams said: “The problem is massive, and growing, although whether it is largely a London issue, I don’t know. However, it is certainly something that all agents should be alert to.
“Typically, the fraudsters look for sales properties advertised on Rightmove, although in one of the cases we have experienced, there was no marketing on the portals and no For Sale board by request of the vendor.
“The fraudsters seem to use local knowledge to look for empty homes, such as probate properties, change the locks, and advertise on Gumtree.
“It has got to the stage where we are incredibly careful about marketing sales properties.
“We don’t put up For Sale boards without explaining the risks to the sellers, and we always make sure the properties look occupied at all times, using automatic timers to make the lights go on and off.”
Williams said that in the cases where ‘tenants’ move in, they are usually innocent foreigners unable to produce the kind of paperwork that would get them through referencing.
He said: “There is obviously a gap in the market to service this kind of tenant, who may have cash but no acceptable employment records. They have usually handed over money and signed what they believe are legitimate tenancy agreements.
“The police usually tell them they must leave immediately, potentially adding to the homelessness problem.”