A Sunshine Coast mother is heartbroken after thinking she’d finally found a home to call her own – only to discover she had been scammed out of thousands of dollars.
Nikki Hart, 35, has spent more than a year painstakingly searching for a home for her and her six-year-old daughter.
After more than a dozen rejections due to her $400,000 budget, she was thrilled to see that her offer had finally been accepted on a two-bedroom duplex near Nambour.
“I put the offer in for the property as it was a great size home, small backyard for our two small dogs who my six-year-old daughter absolutely loves and has grown up with,” Ms Hart told Yahoo News Australia.
In an email chain between Ms Hart and the scammer, the messages are so realistic they appear to come from the agency's exact email address, and even use the name of an employee in the signature.
Early in the correspondence, the agent tells Ms Hart that in order to “secure the property” a one per cent – or $4000 – deposit must be made.
The mum wanted to walk through the property before paying any money, but the scammer urged them to make a payment as soon as possible – saying the amount would be refundable if she changed her mind about the place.
Heartbreaking moment mum realises she’s been scammed
On Wednesday, October 5, Ms Hart arrived at the property at the scheduled time of 5pm, ready to walk through her potential forever home.
After waiting almost half an hour, no agent arrived. She sent a follow up email and attempted to call the agency – and that's when she received a devastating call back.
“I had the principle of the realestate agency call me back and requested I come into the office to show him all emails,” Ms Hart said.
“My heart was broken into a million pieces,” she added, saying she walked into their office in tears.
“I do my absolute best as a single mum and to have this happen to us is heartbreaking, it really is.
“I pray it does not happen to anyone else.”
Thankfully, after reporting the scam to the police, her $4000 deposit was returned.
The property at the centre of the scam is a legitimate property that is on the market for $495,000 and is in no way connected to the scam.
The principal of Keyline Realty – the agency that was mimicked by the scammer – told Yahoo News legitimate realtors would never ask for money before a buyer has seen the house.
“We have never asked for money from a buyer before they’ve inspected a property and I’ve never heard of any other agents doing so either,” Andrew Hicks said.
He said it’s the first time they’ve been involved in a scam like this, but insist the business “spends a lot of money” on measures to keep their information secure.
Mr Hicks also issued a word of caution to buyers entering the competitive market.
“If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is – so be extra cautious. If you make an offer that is way below the asking price and everything else on the market at the time and it's accepted, be vigilant.
“You do hear of it happening, but it's extremely rare.”
Mr Hicks has now offered to help Ms Hart, who is currently living in a small granny flat and sharing a bed with her daughter.
“The type of property she’s looking for within the budget she has doesn’t become available often though,” he said.
“I asked my team to focus on finding a property that is as close to her requirements as possible. We haven’t found anything yet, but it's early days.”
Scam began after spotting property online
Ms Hart said the scam began when she found the property on realestate.com.au and filled out an email enquiry to the Keyline Realty team.
After being made aware of the scam, Realestate.com.au conducted an investigation and confirmed their forms are secure.
"Following investigation we can confirm there has been no unauthorised access on our realestate.com.au agent enquiry form,” a spokesperson told Yahoo News.
“We take security extremely seriously and act swiftly on all matters related to consumer privacy. Protection measures buyers can take when purchasing property include in-person inspections, requesting a contract of sale and engaging professional legal or conveyancing services.
“Buyers can also protect themselves online when arranging via email to transfer money to a third party by verifying account details in person or over the phone using a number listed against the business obtained from an independent source.”
How you can protect yourself against scams
Stephen Kho, Cyber Security Expert at digital security firm Avast, said there are a number of different ways scammers can impersonate businesses.
“One way is known as a BEC scam – or Business Email Compromise scam. Scammers usually impersonate a business or its employees primarily via email, but it can be carried out using SMS messages, voice mail messages, and even phone calls, and they involve requesting an upcoming payment to be redirected to a fraudulent account,” Mr Kho told Yahoo News.
“Email address spoofing and fake websites posing as the real one can also be used to trick consumers in this kind of a scam.”
Three-quarters of Australians have experienced a spike in attempted scams in the last year, according to Avast research, with one-in-five encountering scams on a daily basis.
“As property deals with large sums of money, it is an attractive area for scammers to get involved in,” Mr Kho said.
“Everyone who is looking into buying, selling or even leasing property should be vigilant when communicating via email, particularly during settlement periods.”
Mr Kho offered some tips on how Australians can protect themselves from falling victim to fraud:
Speak to the company or visit them face-to-face first before transferring any money
Always look carefully at the sender's email address or the URL of the website visited to make sure it directly lines up with the site you assume you are visiting, as in some instances there are sites that appear to be identical to a real site but are known as phishing sites that scammers create to pose as legitimate businesses.
Have a look to see if the website has a PayPal option for payment. This is a good sign if it does because the Paypal website will do extensive checks with the sites they work on to ensure the business it is providing a payment option for is legitimate. If there is a scam through Paypal, you are able work with Paypal to dispute the payment for up to $20,000.
Make sure you are using a reputable antivirus program which will keep you protected against intrusions and malware that aim to steal your passwords and other personal information.
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