Looking for Tenants: Attempted Fraud

I’ve been on both sides of some dodgy accommodation application processes: excluded from renting a room for being in a same-sex relationship, dropping out of an intrusive application process, and looking for a tenant for a room.

In 2014, I had a supposed tenant attempt to defraud me of personal details, in particular, my PayPal email address. They had already stolen someone’s identity to make the rental application. I assume they planned to use my details as part of further identity theft and/or fraud.

This kind of fraud is pretty common: my applicant was “on a cruise ship”, so they could “only email”. They couldn’t call, or inspect the room. They were happy with the “photos on the site of the house”, but wanted the exact address. (More potential identity theft!) They seemed to have no idea it was an apartment.

The person provided pictures of “herself”, but the two pictures didn’t seem to be of the same person. They were also a very poor resolution and quality – not what you’d expect of contemporary holiday snaps. The same photo(s) were also used on a LinkedIn profile and on various dating sites, under various names. Google reverse image search is an essential tool for discovering this kind of fraud.

The scammer then used a name and email from a Facebook profile with a different picture. (I think the Facebook profile had been hacked.) Again, Googling email addresses and names uncovered this rather quickly.

The scammer wanted to pay for several months’ rent upfront to secure the room. This is really weird, but a terribly attractive offer when you’re sick of looking for tenants. (And, I have to admit, I felt sympathetic for their “difficult” situation.) They almost got some account details from me, because they said they wanted to pay thousands of dollars upfront.

But, as I searched online for the details they provided, the whole scam unravelled rather quickly.

I ended up reporting this scam to the real estate website, the State (well, Australian Capital Territory) and Federal Government Scam Watch websites, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Most of these sites took appropriate action quickly, except for Facebook, which seems to have a complaint threshold before a human gets involved.

(I hope) this is the end of my mini-series on accommodation search disasters.

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Accommodation Applications: It Gets Weirder

Apart from being discriminated against for having a boyfriend (even if the discrimination was not strictly illegal), I’ve had some other strange experiences looking for accommodation.

I went through an accommodation application process earlier in 2015, which just got weirder and weirder.

Occupancy Application

An application for accommodation asked some intrusive personal questions. These questions would likely be illegal in my jurisdiction (the Australian Capital Territory, or ACT), were it not for the fact the landlord intended to live there. However, in the specific circumstances, the domestic accommodation exception to discrimination may not have applied, as the legislation says “lives and intends to continue to live on the premises”, and the place was empty on inspection. (I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.) The landlord only disclosed their intention to live on the premises very late in the process, after repeated email exchanges. (At this point, it had become so weird, I was never going to move in there.)

I tried reporting these terms to the responsible ACT Government department, and they directed me to the ACT tenants union, which is understaffed, and takes phone messages for callbacks for 90 minutes per day. At that point, I got the impression that services addressing my concerns were underfunded, to say the least. So I gave up on that strategy for addressing my concerns.

Here are some of the actual questions, and my concerns:

Disability Pension yes/no
Rent Relief yes/no

3. DO YOU HAVE ANY DISABILITY AT ALL?
4. ARE YOU APPLYING FOR RENT ASSISTANCE?

These questions could be used to discriminate against persons with a disability, or on a low income. There is an assumption that people receiving government benefits don’t pay their rent on time. (Which may be generally accurate, but in my case, I had financial support available to pay rent and other essentials.) A non-discriminatory alternative is requiring a larger deposit, and/or larger rent payments in advance.

[List] Children

6 ARE YOU, SINGLE, MARRIED, DATING, HAVE CLOSE FRIEND?
7 WILL YOU HAVE OVERNIGHT VISITORS? Ie FAMILY/FRIEND?

13 WHAT IS YOUR AGE?
14 HAVE YOU BEEN TO COURT OR TRIBUNAL BEFORE?
15 WHAT IS YOUR ETHNIC BACKGROUND?
16 WHAT ARE YOU STUDYING/WORK?

After all these questions, the potential landlord has pretty much made a clean sweep of the grounds on which you are not permitted to discriminate in the ACT. This is quite alarming: Did they use the list from the Act to produce these questions? Or, do people instinctively discriminate based on certain criteria?

Terms and House Rules

Following the application form, the landlord sent me some terms and house rules. Here are some of the more interesting ones, again with commentary:

C. The Licensee has sought independent advice and attempted to negotiate terms prior to signing this agreement.

This clause is intended to avoid a contract of adhesion (standard form contract), where a tenant is placed in a “take it or leave it” position. Adhesion contracts can result in terms being invalidated due to unconscionability, or ambiguous terms being resolved in favour of the tenant. I am not a lawyer, but it appears like a pretty spurious term to me: unless there was actual independent advice and negotiation of terms, assenting to this term is essentially meaningless. (And, ironically, this term could even become the very thing it intends to prevent: an obvious “take it or leave it” term. If the occupant feels they have to lie about genuine negotiation to secure accommodation [or doesn’t know they’re lying, because they haven’t read the terms], then that’s not genuine negotiation.)

It’s as if they’ve read up on the rights tenants have in the ACT, and deliberately tried to revoke them via an occupancy agreement. This pattern continues:

E. The Licensee is to pay $ towards a holding deposit, before being issued with one entry key per occupant. The deposit amount does not include bond payment.

Holding deposits and key deposits are illegal for a residential tenancy, but not an occupancy.

K. The Licensee shall be given a reason for termination of occupancy. The reason may be a breach, or any trivial reason as the Licensor think fit.

This seems like a pretty weak term (“any trivial reason”), but may either be poorly expressed, or cover some legal eventuality. Again, reasons are required for a residential tenancy, but not an occupancy.

(viii) The Licensor will not compensate the licensee where premises become unsuitable for habitation.

Compensation is also required in some circumstances for a residential tenancy, but not an occupancy.

(v) Not interfere with the legal rights of others and not cause psychological harm to others on the premises

There’s a long and somewhat bizarre list of things not to do to other tenants under this one.

15. Overnight guests are to be introduced to all occupants. Any visitors who intend staying overnight more than 2 days are to apply for accommodation at the above premises. All visitors are to be approved before entry by the Licensor (see clause 11).

This clause seems reasonable, except for the pre-approval of visitors. This is impractical, unless, of course, the landlord is always present on the premises. (Which is how I finally obtained her disclosure that she perhaps intended to live there.)

All in all, I don’t really know what to say about this whole situation, except that I got out when it got weirder and weirder. (And I wish I hadn’t wasted as much time on it.) I feel bad for people who have assented to these kinds of intrusive questions and terms. There has to be a better way of protecting tenants than the current arrangements, or lack thereof.

Updated: LGBT Accommodation Discrimination and Me

Update: After I wrote to the landlord, he gave a heartfelt and genuine apology, and said he’d act differently next time. I really appreciate it when people reconsider their views and actions, and I want to acknowledge the effort involved.

I recently had to move house unexpectedly, due to my previous landlord wanting the space back. There were only 9 days between the time I was asked to move out, and when I finished moving house. (This rapid pace wasn’t due to my previous landlord, it just happened that way.)

I looked at a significant number of properties, inspected rooms at six, and came up with a shortlist of four, which I felt ranged from excellent to tolerable. (One declined as they chose another person, and another didn’t get back to me.)

I called the first potential landlord, and we had a chat about specific arrangements to move the next day. I then said: “[When] would you like to meet my boyfriend?” (Who was going to help me move, so meeting him wasn’t really optional.) There were a few seconds’ silence on the phone. The landlord (who lives in the room next to the one I was applying for), asked if my boyfriend would be around much. There was a little awkwardness in the conversation, but it seemed like he recovered quickly. We continued to make arrangements for him to send me the bank account details later that afternoon, so that I could secure the room upon payment. I was looking forward to being close to work, which is why the place was at the top of my shortlist.

I spent the afternoon feeling I had made a terrible mistake disclosing my sexuality and relationship status. I baked biscuits. Because, when you burn biscuits, it’s obvious, and you can throw them out. But when you burn landlords, …

Finally, several hours after I expected to receive bank details via text, I instead received a phone call: “You’re not going to be very happy with me.” Apparently, the landlord and current tenant(s) had decided they only wanted students in the house. (Which seems implausible, given that the ad mentioned a full-time worker as an occupant. It also offered a room suitable for a couple, so that wasn’t the issue.) I told him that at this stage of the process, he could evaluate applicants on whatever basis he wished. And wished him luck finding applicants who suited his criteria.

But I was wrong, at least about the ways in which it is legal to evaluate accommodation applicants. Under ACT law, it is illegal to discriminate against those seeking or accessing accommodation at any stage of the application or tenancy process. (Of course, it still happens.) And, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of (assumed) sexuality, relationship status, or, ironically, the thinly-veiled excuse of occupation. [Correction: If the landlord lives on the premises, their selection of tenants is exempted from ani-discrimination law. I was mistaken because I didn’t read the whole of the Discrimination Act. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.] I told the potential landlord this today. [And I’m just about to eat my words. How awkward.] I doubt he’ll respond. Perhaps he’ll be more clever in his excuses next time. (I guess I could have ended up educating him so he could be more subtly discriminatory.) I hope he reconsiders his attitudes. But, if he doesn’t, he [may be] in a bit of a bind, [at least when it comes to advertising his tenant preferences].

I feel like it would have wasted much less of both our time, if he could have been upfront about his preference for avoiding people he assumes are gay. (I’m bisexual, but I think that distinction would have been lost on him.) Or people in non-straight relationships. Or “people who aren’t students, except for the non-sutdent(s) already living there”. Or whatever. It would be terrible for someone to move in, the landlord to discover they’re gay, and then for them to face overt discrimination for the duration of their contract.

But, due to anti-discrimination law, landlords stating a preference for straight tenants really isn’t an option [unless they are living on the premises]. I doubt the accommodation website would permit it [due to the unlawful (discriminatory advertising) part of the law, and even with the exception for living on the premises, they may not want to be associated with any ads which state “no gays”, however legal] (although I did tell them what he did). It would be unpleasant for me to read through hundreds of ads saying “no gays”. And it would be terrible to not have anywhere to live, simply because I wasn’t straight. I now understand why LGBTIQ people often want to live with other LGBTIQ people.

The accommodation website I used offered applicants (but not landlords), the opportunity to create a profile, and choosing to disclose their sexuality. I believe people should be able to choose whether to disclose their sexuality, and I often choose not to if it seems irrelevant. But if it helps avoid an unpleasant situation like this next time, it’s well worth it.

Now, I’m not homeless. I found some housemates who really don’t mind my sexuality (or my boyfriend). And I moved, fast.

But there are LGBTIQ people around the world who face all sorts of discrimination on a daily basis. Who are homeless as a result, and at a much greater rate than straight people. Particularly young people, whose parents can’t bear to live with them (or treat them abusively), simply because they are gay (US-based figures). What an incredible tragedy.

Blogging Update: It appears that I am going to have to get used to the idea of being an intermittent blogger. There are higher priorities which are taking up a lot of my time right now. And, as a programmer, I already spend a lot of time at a keyboard. So I will satisfy myself with occasional rants. Like this one!