Like many victims, David Munday was a university student when it happened. He was looking for a place to rent, and found one on Gumtree. After viewing the property, David decided to move in, and transferred money for the deposit and first month’s rent to the landlord.
On the day he was due to move in, the landlord was nowhere to be found. He had fled the property, taking David’s money with him.
Effectively homeless, David had to move in with his elder brother Paul in London, and commute back to his university for the remainder of his studies.
It’s a sad story but one that’s all too common. David, now 25, was one of eight students at the university conned by the same scam, at a loss of more than £20,000 between them. Action Fraud received 3,193 reports of rental fraud in 2015, a figure the Local Government Association suggests represents just five percent of victims as embarrassment prevents most from reporting the crime. It estimates that £63 million is lost to such cons every year.
The two brothers from Oxford hatched a plan to prevent others suffering from the same scam. Paul, 35, was then head of account products at Betfair, looking after areas such as login and registration.
"When you join a site like that, there are actually quite a lot of checks that go on in the background," he says. "I think most people have been through a tenant check, and we felt why isn't there a landlord check?"
In October 2016, Paul and David launched RentProfile, the UK's first online landlord checking service.
The platform hosts a database of verified landlords whose credentials can be checked by potential tenants. If the landlord isn’t listed, they can be sent an invitation to join, or a fee of £9 can be paid to RentProfile to conduct the checks and compile a report.
"No one's ever done a landlord check like this before," says Paul, 35. "There are things like registers of landlords, but the problem with these is normally you put in a name or an address, but you don't know if who you're dealing with is that person."
Their checks combine public domain records and other datasets to determine whether a landlord is legitimate or not. Land Registry records are used to verify the ownership of the property. The datasets offered there are either free, available for a fee or accessible only after further due diligence is conducted.
Property ownership records can be forged, so RentProfile conduct further checks for safety. They include records of identity, landlord licensing and prosecutions and additional reports from other renters.
The verification procedure is automated through an algorithm they designed, but they also conduct additional manual verification.
Paul manages the business side of RentProfile, while David handles technical development. He studied sport management at university, but decided against pursuing it professionally. His career took a new turn when Paul introduced him to Codeacademy, an interactive platform offering free coding classes.
"A lot of it was just learning through doing things and making mistakes. You know, breaking it, fixing it," he says. "If you look around, it's quite surprising how many things you can get for free or low cost online from top universities."
The self-taught developer now boasts qualifications on his CV from illustrious academic institutions such as Harvard and Stanford. He applied his new skills to design RentProfile using the Ruby on Rails framework.
"Originally after all this happened, David didn't know how to code," says Paul. "I was looking for a cofounder for some time, somebody who could code it up and had considered outsourcing. In the end David was just very natural when it comes to this sort of work and development."
Plans and preparation
In their research for the project, the brothers spoke to a few hundred renters and landlords and the RLA (Residential Landlords Association). They also commissioned an independent survey that showed there was a market for their idea and enthusiasm from both sides. Of the roughly 500 renters they surveyed, five percent had been victims of rental fraud.
They've attracted around £200,000 of investment so far, half of which has come from a government grant from Innovate UK.
The brothers hope to expand their business to flagging illegal sublets with listings sites and local authorities. RentProfile shares its APIs so others can replicate the functionality, including embedding its website profiles in sites such as Gumtree.
Getting local authorities and housing associations on board hasn't always been easy, but they've been supported by British trade association techUK and the housing sector innovation agency HACT.
Another idea they're working on is offering background checks on tenants, who can then share the results with landlords. The system would give renters an advantage in a competitive property market, and provide landlords with reassurances that their clients aren't rogue tenants.
"We sit in the middle," says Paul. "There's good and bad on both sides, renters and landlords, and what we're trying to do is identify where that line is, and I think building up who people are and their history is our plan to do that."
David never did find the landlord who ran away with his money, but he hopes the launch of RentProfile will prevent others falling victim to the same fate that he did.
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