Five government agencies have launched a joint investigation into recent real estate scams to determine if extra protection is necessary to stop identity theft and warned of more attempts at bogus sales.
The Commercial Crime Division of WA Police, Consumer Protection, Landgate, the Real Estate and Business Agents Supervisory Board and the Settlement Agents Supervisory Board will investigate after a Wembley Downs man had an investment property sold while he was overseas.
Roger Mildenhall was in South Africa when he was told that his Hale Road home was on the market.
He then found out his investment property in Deanmore Road, Karrinyup, had been sold in June for $485,000 without his knowledge.
The five agencies will examine how the property was fraudulently sold and consider measures that will be aimed at minimising the risk of a repeat occurrence.
Similarities to an attempted fraudulent sale of a West Perth apartment in 2008 will also be examined.
Officer-in-charge of the Major Fraud Squad Detective Senior Sergeant Don Heise said both cases involved scammers from Nigeria with possible collaborators in South Africa.
"It appears there was an interception of the landowner’s mail in South Africa, where the fraudsters stole his identity and falsified a number of documents. These were then sent to the relevant real estate agent in Perth," Det Snr Sgt Heise said.
Snr Sgt Heise said possible warning signs included:
- Notification of a change of contact details, email and postal addresses of the property owner prior to the sale request;
- Sale was communicated as urgent for business or other personal reasons;
- Promise of future sales through the agent as an incentive to cooperate with a speedy sale and settlement;
- Documents from Notary Public in Nigeria, verifying documents and identity;
- Request for a short-term loan before settlement;
- English in some of the correspondence very basic or poor.
REBA says that last week a Perth real estate agent reported another attempted sale scam involving a bogus owner.
Chairman Mark Cuomo said the bogus owner’s name didn’t match that of the registered proprietor so it was quickly identified as a fraud attempt.
"The style of this approach was different to the other cases but highlights that the fraud attempts might increase after the success of the Karrinyup case," Mr Cuomo said.
"All real estate agents must now be increasingly vigilant against these types of scam attempts and carry out extra checks to verify an owner’s identity, particularly those who are selling local property while overseas.
"It would be an effective fraud-prevention practice that, if a property owner changes their postal or email address, they should send a confirmation to the old address to make sure the new address is genuine. Similarly, if phone and fax numbers change, try the old number to double check.
"We would also suggest to agents to ask questions of absentee owners that only the real owner would know, perhaps about the last sale or characteristics of the property.”
"Agents could also consider asking for selling fees up front, as scammers will most likely be discouraged from pursuing the sale or will make up excuses as to why they can’t pay them.
"The onus, however, is on the agent to exercise due diligence in these situations and to be extra vigilant."
SASB Chairperson Mirina Muir said that often the settlement agent was considered to be the last line of defence against inappropriate property transfers.
"We would encourage all settlement agents who are currently, or will be in the future, dealing with absentee owners to be ever vigilant and double check the validity of documents that have originated overseas," Ms Muir said.
WA’s Registrar of Titles Bruce Roberts has reminded professionals within the property industry to ensure that identity verification is included in their practices.
"These checks could involve the 100-point system where the owner must produce multiple sources of identity with photographs and signatures."
Commissioner for Consumer Protection Anne Driscoll said scams are now becoming more professional and more elaborate.