The business models of criminal landlords explained – Part 3
This short series is a guide to those landlords and professionals working in the PRS who might find it difficult to get their head around the vastly different way that the criminals view the market.
This is certainly the case in the four London boroughs that my outfit ‘Safer Renting’ operate in which is echoed by my experiences talking to officers in councils across Britain as a trainer.
Lesson #3: Fake companies, aliases, and general obfuscation.
Sounds obvious but if you are up to no good and want to avoid detection or penalties you don’t use your own name. Any action that a local authority enforcement team can bring has to be brought against a known and proven perpetrator. Sometimes the trick is to just pluck a name out of thin air.
At other times a person may mix and match their own names with shortened versions thrown in which is particularly difficult when people come from communities where it is normal to have around five names in your full title or anglicised versions of say Indian or Bangladeshi names.
Often an unfamiliar name will get miss-spelled in emails and correspondence as a case progresses, which I find particularly common with lengthy Sri Lankan names or names of Eastern European origin, with far too many “Z’s” and “C’s” in unfamiliar order, meaning Google isn’t very helpful.
In one confusing case I dealt with in the 1990s the landlord was called Kemal Mustafa and the tenant called Mustafa Kemal……oh, hours of fun.
Names don’t even have to be complex
Complicated prefixes aside an enforcement officer trying to track down a culprit can also find their investigations hampered simply because the name they have is so commonplace, such as John Smith or Dave Ayres.
Some individual agents give different names to different tenants, so nobody can even tell who they have been dealing with.
If an enforcement team are going to move against a company they have to go for the directors but the names of directors and secretaries can often be family members or friends and you will regularly see frequent changes when you look them up on Companies House, as if the whole structure of the company is built on quicksand.
Also common is using the title “Limited” when it isn’t actually registered with companies house or was dissolved some years back, but still using the same name for trading. Another regular is using the name of a limited company that genuinely exists but isn’t actually yours, just by leaving off ‘Limited’, or having a name so close to a reputable firm that people make assumptions. Fixtons instead of Foxtons.
Since the Apple i brand came about, iPhone, iMac etc, we commonly encounter companies beginning with ‘i’. I doubt that tenants and landlords believe that somehow Apple has opened a run-down letting agent’s shop in Hackney but the power of branding still holds sway.
Registered addresses are another issue
Many companies are registered at business postal addresses to distance themselves from where they can actually be found and the same group of registration addresses crop up enough to make you wonder if all these people know each other and to raise concerns, even though most companies using these 5 or 6 addresses may be entirely legit.
You see this less with homeowners, the problem being that they have to register themselves at Land Registry if they want to maintain ownership but rogue letting agents will utilise identity confusion quite widely and it is common practice for the agents to change their name periodically with a shop front make-over, particularly so when an enforcement team take successful action for a breach of some kind.
You can get the penalty but if the firm then folds where do you get the money?
It’s a constant game of cat and mouse
One agent that I was trying to restrain for a couple of years ran a website that had been carefully worded to make it appear that he was a charity for the homeless without actually saying so outright.
I was alarmed to find that he had managed to hoodwink another council into using him as a place to refer single homeless people and those recently left care. One of his ‘Hostels’ was listed on the website as a place for people with substance abuse problems. When we raided it with police it was actually a cannabis farm……so in a sense, he wasn’t far wrong.
I was pleased to see when the notion of Banning Orders was ushered in that for once government seemed to have taken advice from the street as it were and predicted the kinds of things that rogues and criminals would do to wriggle out of being banned.
Section 27 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 prevents the banned person from transferring the property over to:-
“(a) a person associated with the landlord,
(b) a business partner of the landlord,
(c) a person associated with a business partner of the landlord,
(d) a business partner of a person associated with the landlord,
(e) a body corporate of which the landlord or a person mentioned in paragraph (a) to (d) is an officer,
(f) a body corporate in which the landlord has a shareholding or other financial interest, or
(g) in a case where the landlord is a body corporate, any body corporate that has an officer in common with the landlord.”
I doubt very much that this will be foolproof but at least government actually thought about it for once.
The end result is delayed
While enforcement officers might spend an inordinate amount of pub-whinge time complaining about this time-consuming run-around, the reality of all this obfuscation means ultimately that it is more difficult to protect the tenants and improve slum conditions.
You can’t get a judge on your side without firm evidence on perpetrators, tenants can’t find out who has their deposit when all involved are pointing the finger at everyone else. The person who turned up Friday night to threaten the occupants might be unknown to them but instructed by either the landlord or the agent and sometimes there might be more than one agent involved.
Next time I will be explaining the most widespread and growing trend of rent to rent and the big problems this is creating for all parties.