More expatriates have become victims of tricky landlords, dodgy tenancy agreements, disappearing deposits and other rental snares.
According to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), foreigners lodged 32, out of a total of 365, complaints against real estate agents from last October to March this year.
This was a 23 per cent increase from the 26, out of 516, complaints within the same period a year earlier .
The Institute of Estate Agents itself has received five complaints from foreigners since last October. None of the agents mentioned was registered with it.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said that most of the complaints it received concerned rental agreements.
Commonly cited were overcharging and failure to honour agreements, especially with regard to refunds.
The onset of the economic crisis, with many retrenched foreigners terminating their leases early, may be a push factor for rogue agents.
Mr Chris Koh, a director at realty company Dennis Wee Group, said: 'There are probably dishonest agents acting alone, desperate to collect their full commission, who resorted to underhand tactics to withhold deposits.'
American technician Robert Jones, 36, and Mauritian IT professional Ashwin Ramdeehul, 29, spoke to The Sunday Times. They claimed they were cheated out of their deposits by the same person they had separately contacted.
Both had sought an HDB flat to rent, and had contacted an 'agent' through his advertisement.
When taken to view their prospective units, they were introduced to the 'landlord', a 40-year-old woman.
In Mr Jones' case, he signed a tenancy agreement with her on Feb 20 to rent a four-room HDB flat in Woodlands for $1,050 a month. He wanted to move in without delay as his wife was due to give birth to their first child soon.
He said that in his haste to rent, he did not pursue the fact that the owner was listed as someone else, but the 'landlord' on the documents was listed as the woman.
After paying her $5,250 (the deposit plus four months' rent), he then found he was unable to contact her. Anxious, he approached the owner's family at the Woodlands flat on Feb 23 and was told that the unit was being rented to the woman from March 7.
The owner assured him that he could move in as agreed on March 20.
He later went to the flat again, just to be sure, but was told that the woman had found another tenant. 'I was offered another flat in Ang Mo Kio, which I rejected,' said Mr Jones, who then asked for a full refund from the woman.
However, he was told he would get only $4,200, or four months' rent, as $1,050 was being forfeited because he 'backed out' of the agreement, a contention he disputed.
When contacted by The Sunday Times, the woman said: 'The owner did not want to rent to him because he was a nuisance who harassed them even before he was allowed to move in.'
She said she was acting on behalf of the owner, and produced a written agreement that was signed by the owner.
To date, she said, she has refunded Mr Jones $1,889 and added she would repay him $4,200 eventually.
However, Mr Jones wants all his money back. 'I paid $5,250, never got the house, and now she wants to return me $1,050 less?' he said.
He made a police report on March 5 and furthered his case at the Small Claims Tribunal on March 25, where he was granted a money order to collect the full amount from her. However, he has yet to get the money as she has remained uncontactable.
Like Mr Jones, Mr Ramdeehul paid a deposit in December last year to the same woman after signing a tenancy agreement for a two-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. He said she even provided a set of keys.
But he claimed she later told him the owner no longer wanted to rent out the flat and offered to find him a similar unit. When he refused, she returned only $550 of his $3,200 deposit, he said.
He made two police reports after he used the keys she had given him. 'When I opened the door, I saw a family who told me that she never gave them my deposit like she had promised,' he said.
He, too, filed a complaint at the Small Claims Tribunal and was issued a money order to collect the full amount but, like Mr Jones, has been unable to contact her since.
A check by The Sunday Times found an advisory on the Chinese Embassy's website which said that since many cases of rental disputes involve the sublease of property estates handled by that woman, 'the embassy would like tenants to stay alert when working with her'.
The Sunday Times spoke to other foreigners here who found themselves involved in complicated rental disputes or were allegedly cheated of money.
Mrs Nadya Begum, 37, and her engineer husband from Manchester, England, said they have been cheated not once but thrice in their seven years here.
'The first time, we were ignorant and did not ask for the agent's personal details. We ended up paying a deposit for a flat which had already been 'rented' out to four other couples, also foreigners.
'The second time, the agent cut off his phone line after he collected our deposit. The last time, in November 2008, we were smart enough to get the details of the agent and all the paperwork, but the landlord absconded with the money and is still uncontactable.'
ERA Reality associate director Eugene Lim said: 'Some unethical agents prey on the ignorance of foreigners, especially those who cannot speak English or Chinese and face a language barrier.'
South Korean housewife and study mama Kim Ae Ran, 46, said she was cheated of a $6,000 housing deposit by a real estate agent who claimed to be working for PropNex agency.
When she decided on Dec 9 last year to terminate her lease early and return to South Korea because her husband's business in Seoul was ailing, she gave two months' notice via e-mail to her landlord through her agent.
The landlord replied, also via e-mail, that he would refund her the full deposit of $6,000 with the 'expiry or lawful termination' of her lease.
But it has been 11/2 months since she and her two children moved out. They are now staying with a friend and she has not received any of the promised money.
When contacted by The Sunday Times, the agent said that Mrs Kim had 'unlawfully terminated' her lease and was not entitled to her deposit. He added that he was 'only an agent, not responsible for the sum', and that the landlord was away in China and uncontactable.
When PropNex was contacted, it investigated and found that the agent had already left the company when he signed the tenancy agreement with Mrs Kim.
It also found that the tenancy agreement he drew up stated that commission would be paid to an agent of 'PropNex Reality', rather than 'PropNex Realty'.
PropNex has since lodged a police report against the man.
Meanwhile, industry players say the recent announcement in Parliament to review and regulate agents could not have come sooner.
Mr Koh of Dennis Wee Group said: 'At the moment, only about one-third of real estate agents here are CEHA-certified.'
CEHA is the Common Examination for House Agents started in 1996 to raise the standards of real estate agents here.
He added: 'The industry badly needs both regulation and proper training, as well as penalties for rogue or scamming agents - it should be a two-pronged approach.'
Source: Straits Times, 5 April 2009