Renters are being asked to share more personal information than they actually need to in order to find somewhere to live, according to a new study.

Consumer NZ used mystery shoppers posing as prospective tenants as part of its nationwide study of rental property managers.

The watchdog wanted to find out if property agents were following Privacy Commissioner guidance about what information they can ask prospective tenants for.

Property agents aren’t allowed to ask people about things such as their political opinions, race or ethnicity, employment status.

Their study found one in 10 agents encouraged mystery shoppers to volunteer extra information.

Renters United president Geordie Rogers says the problem of prospective tenants feeling like they have to hand over more private information has become worse in recent years.

“I think for a long time that kind of information has been asked for, but because so many people are desperate to find a place to live, it gets to the point where you kind of toss up the options and you go, ‘well, actually, I would rather someone invade my right to privacy than not give me a home,’” he says.

“It's really unfortunate that someone has to make that decision.”

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) developed its guide over what landlords or property managers can ask tenants because of growing concerns over power imbalances. 

Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster says they saw some property managers asking for very detailed information.

“[So] we worked with rental agencies and renters’ advocates to develop guidance to clarify the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords under the Privacy Act.”

Mystery shopping like the Consumer NZ study is one way to monitor how well those guidelines are being followed.

What information is on the no-go list?

The guidance says landlords or property managers should not ask prospective tenants for information that is protected under the Human Rights Act. 

This includes sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, relationship or family status, religious or ethical beliefs, race or ethnicity, physical or mental disability or illness, age (except whether a tenant is aged over 18), political opinions, and employment status.

The guidance also says tenants should never be asked to hand over bank statements so their spending can be reviewed.

But Consumer NZ’s mystery shoppers found 10% of agents encouraged them to share extra information via a “rental CV” and cover letter.

One shopper was told: “The more information you give, the better your chances [of securing a rental property].”

Another agent suggested extra information would “make your application stand out from the others”.

Six per cent of agents also asked mystery shoppers to include bank statements as part of their rental application, which is potentially illegal under the Privacy Act.

A common problem

Consumer NZ says it asked the public to share their experiences of the current rental market as part of the study and received one of their highest ever responses.

Gray, a 25-year-old in Christchurch, says her landlord asked her to provide bank statements and salary details. 

Her landlord also asked “some really weird questions”, including how long she had held her current phone number, and her boss’ phone number to confirm where she worked.

Renters United often hears of people being asked to give up private information when applying to rent a home.

Rogers says most of it is around gender, ethnicity, and employment status.  

“Employment status is often used to discriminate against beneficiaries, who in most cases have a more secure source of income than people who are working.”

Concerns over information security

Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy says it’s concerning that some renters are encouraged to give up sensitive information.

“It also raises questions about what happens to this information,” he says.

Mystery shoppers found 14% of agents lost interest in them when they asked about the privacy and security of their information.

Rogers says prospective tenants need to think about how the information they share could be used.

“If you're applying for a flat and you don't get the flat, it's really important to email the property manager or the landlord and ask them to delete any of the personal information that they have,” he says.

“Just say, ‘oh, thank you for considering me. Just a reminder, please delete any personal information that you hold on me.’ They are obliged to do that.”

Duffy says it’s ultimately up to tenants to decide how much information they share.

“The way we see it, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't,” he says.

“We hope the findings in this research encourage property agents to clean up their act.”

What can you do?

If you are a renter and have experienced illegal behaviour by an agent or landlord relating to your privacy, you can lodge a complaint with OPC. 

You can also share your experience anonymously with Renters United.

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