Lettings agent fined for 'bait and switch' scam that duped renter into Bethnal Green 'honey trap'
PUBLISHED: 17:00 10 January 2019 | UPDATED: 22:18 10 January 2019
A duped renter has won back his deposit after a lettings agent was fined a record £167,000 with another £8,800 costs for a misleading advertising scam for a ground-floor bedsit near Victoria Park that turned out to be a tiny room at the top of the stairs.
A judge described the scam as a “honey trap” of misrepresentation and accused the agent of “using muscle” in a threatening way.
Freelance video editor Justin Wight was moving to east London from the Midlands and saw the bedsit in Bethnal Green being promoted online on the Sterling De Vere website.
He paid £740 deposit—but the got a shock when he picked up the keys from the agency in Poplar to find it was a much smaller room tucked away on the third floor of the terraced house in Bonner Road, which also had mould, bad fittings and a broken sash window.
It was definitely unsuitable for lugging his camera equipment up and down.
So the 34-year-old sought help under Tower Hamlets renters’ charter which led to a trading standards investigation that uncovered a ‘bait and switch’ scam.
“I was delighted at the court findings,” Justin told the East London Advertiser.
“I didn’t think I’d get my deposit back. Building a case was stressful, but I pursued it because I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.
“A lot of people such as students, immigrants and the elderly can get caught like this and may not be able to cope.”
Justin had exchanged messages with the agency on WhatsApp to confirm the pictures it sent were the flat he was renting—but instead was duped into paying for the tiny room on the third floor.
The company, registered as SDV HQ Limited, claimed at Thames magistrates’ court that Justin was responsible for the mistake and refused to apologise, or offer a new room or respond to his complaint.
Instead, it had pursued him for unpaid rent despite the judge describing the contract as “voidable due to the misrepresentation”.
The judge’s summing up noted: “The company attempts to wring money out of its customers, many of whom are vulnerable people. It produces a library of photos to entice people to enter a non-effective contract.”
It was a “deliberate honey trap” and misrepresentation, in the judge’s view. The company was “using muscle including lawyers to deal with people in a false and threatening way”.
The company based in Chrisp Street pleaded guilty and was given three months to pay, but is appealing against the fine.
A company statement confirmed: “The sentencing is currently under appeal. The amount of the fine is grossly disproportionate. The photograph of the incorrect bedroom was sent to the client in error and he received accommodation in the same property, therefore it was wrong in principle for the judge to sentence on the basis of ‘bait and switch’.”
The statement claimed “Sterling De Vere has served 10,000 satisfied clients and this was only one incident”.
Yet this was the second court appearance at Thames Magistrates for Sterling De Vere in three months.
It was fined £54,000 in September for renting out an overcrowded flat on the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch with no heating and inadequate fire precautions. Tenants complained about the conditions and said the landlord had ignored requests to carry out repairs. The former three-bed council property in Benson House had been converted into a five-bed for six people, netting the company £3,250 a month in rent.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs said after the latest case against Sterling de Vere: “This is major victory for renters and our trading standards team that sends a message that we will take strong action against letting agents who undertake this (‘bait and switch’) practice.”
The council has pledged to protecting renters who can fall victim to unscrupulous letting agencies and landlords. Its Renters’ Charter sets out standards the law demands and aims to make sure that landlords meet those standards.