Larry Schlesinger | 6 February 2013

Absentee landlords on alert as Perth estate agents foil fresh scammers

Absentee landlords have been placed on fresh alert against overseas criminals selling their properties after a plot to sell two investment properties in late January was foiled by vigilant Perth estate agents.

Both properties are owned by investors who live in South Africa, and the case follows the foiling of similar scams in October and June last year.

In the last few years scammers have managed to sell two properties they didn't own – one in Karrinyup in 2010 and another in Ballajura in August 2011.

WA Today.com.au reports that scam artists attempted to sell a property worth $700,000 in the northern suburbs of Perth and another in the southern Perth suburbs worth $800,000.

In one case, the agent became suspicious after receiving a phone call from the scammer, who had an African accent, wanting an urgent sale for the property that had just sold two months earlier, said Consumer Protection and WA Police in a joint statement.

“In the second case, the agency had received a request to sell the property supported by copies of fake passports, forged signatures and a letter of verification purportedly from the Australian High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa."

Documents obtained by WA Today.com.au show a date on the letter to the high commission of January 31.

“The alarm was raised when the agency’s sales manager identified warning signs of property fraud he had learned in presentations and educational material provided by Consumer Protection, WA Police and REIWA. In this case, scammers requested an urgent sale and promised the agency future sales – similar tactics used in previous scam attempts.”

The latest attempts are being investigated by the WA Police Major Fraud Squad with a view to identifying the offenders.

“The investigation will analyse similarities between these incidents and past successful and attempted property frauds, such as the links to Africa and the methods of contact. It’s clear that the criminals are again active and could be targeting other agencies now and in the future, so everyone in the property industry needs to be extra vigilant,” said Detective Senior Sergeant Dom Blackshaw.

While the frauds were detected fairly quickly, Commissioner for Consumer Protection Anne Driscoll expressed concern and disappointment that these attempts were not detected much earlier by property management staff.

“It’s vital, where possible, that these fraud attempts are picked up by real estate agents before the scammers even get to first base and certainly well before any documents and personal details of the real owner are sent to these criminals,” Driscoll said.

“It’s important that real estate agents and their employees independently confirm any change in contact details for the properties they manage. It is clearly stated in the scam prevention guidelines issued to agents that confirmation of changes should first be sent to original contact addresses, both physical and email, that are on file. This will alert the real owners should there be an attempt to steal their identity and ultimately their home.

“Agents should be particularly vigilant when a request for change in details comes from an absentee owner, but all transactions should be thoroughly scrutinised to ensure they are only dealing with the true owner. Agents must rely on good procedures to detect these fraud attempts early."

Two weeks ago REIWA president David Airey wrote that the state government has implemented a system "whereby the seller of a property must produce evidence of identity in much the same way as you do when you open a bank account or sign a mobile phone contract".

"This means a 100-point check in most cases, through which the seller has to produce a series of different identity documents such as a passport, driver’s license, rates notice, bank statement and birth certificate. It is almost impossible for such multi-layered counterfeit to occur and hugely reduces the risk of property fraud," wrote Airey.

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