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‘Fake bailiffs’ from private security companies carry out illegal evictions

Vulnerable families are being tricked out of their rented homes by private security guards dressed like court bailiffs, a charity has warned.

Safer Renting, a charity-run tenancy relations service operating in seven London boroughs, said criminal landlords were increasingly turning to private security companies to get tenants to leave their homes without a court order.

“We’ve seen a spate of cases this year where landlords have used uniformed security guards to give the impression of a court-sanctioned eviction,” said Ben Reeve-Lewis, co-founder of Safer Renting. “In the past, criminal landlords may have sent heavies to throw tenants out, but this is the first time in 33 years of working in the private-rented sector that I’ve seen fake bailiffs kitted out with stab vests, radios and handcuffs. Some of them even have vans with police-like livery on the side.”

Only court-appointed bailiffs can legally evict people from their homes. Landlords must first give notice and then obtain a possession order from a court. Anyone else using force or changing locks is committing a criminal offence.

These warnings come amid the largest shake-up of the private rental market in decades, with the government’s renters reform bill outlawing no-fault evictions and requiring landlords to register their properties.

Landlords caught carrying out illegal evictions could face fixed penalty fines of up to £30,000 under the bill – a significant increase on the hundreds currently imposed by the courts. But enforcement is extremely rare: only 29 landlords were convicted of illegal evictions or harassment in England and Wales in 2021 despite thousands of complaints.

In the charity’s most recent case, a landlord used a private security firm to help evict two families, including a woman and her autistic son, in east London. The landlord ordered the families to leave even though they had a tenancy agreement and then changed the locks while two security staff stood guard. “The families are in temporary accommodation now but the woman is having trouble getting her son to his special school as she is further away,” said Reeve-Lewis. “We’re taking legal action to get them back in. These kinds of cases shock the general public, but we see it all the time.”

Related: Renters’ reform must close loopholes for unfair evictions, campaigners say

The charity has dealt with three similar cases this year. In February, a landlord hired a property enforcement company to remove a hotel cleaner and her five children because she couldn’t afford a 30% rent increase. The guards, who arrived in a van with police-like battenburg markings, tried to force their way in while she was working, claiming the family was trespassing. They only left when Safer Renting intervened.

The Met, which was called to one of the evictions, said it received a call about attempts being made to evict tenants without a court order. “It was not possible for officers to deploy due to resourcing and volume of other incidents, and the details available to the call handler did not indicate an immediate response was needed,” the force said in a statement.

Illegal evictions and harassment are increasing as the cost of living erodes the income of renters and shortages allow landlords to put up rents. Initial figures compiled by the charity from sources including Citizens Advice, Shelter, and local authorities show there were more than 8,000 instances of illegal eviction or harassment in 2022. This is up on almost 7,800 cases in 2021 and more than 6,900 cases in 2020.

“There is now an illegal eviction taking place every hour of every day,” said John-Luke Bolton, who co-produces the charity’s annual illegal eviction report. “The rental market looks more and more like the wild west because there is so little enforcement.

“The police too often side with the landlord or treat it as a civil dispute. Councils rarely take action because they lost so many specialist tenancy-relations officers during austerity. And it’s hard to take civil action because tenants can’t claim legal aid for eviction cases.”