Buyers, beware these sophisticated property scams

Private Property South Africa
Press

Fraudsters are increasingly using technology to trick property buyers out of large sums of money.

As technology improves, so does the level of property scams that do the rounds, and while every precaution seems to be taken, there will be yet another thing that fraudsters find to dupe people out of large sums of money, warns Johnny Henkes of law firm Henkes Nolte-Joubert.

One particularly alarming scam that is circulating, is one where emails with sensitive information are intercepted. The scam artists will send an email (seemingly from the seller) to the conveyancing firm changing the details of the legitimate bank account number for the payment of a property sale, to details of a fraudulent one. The emails look legitimate and seem normal, except the seller has not changed bank accounts, nor is aware of any change until it is too late.

Conveyancing attorneys should all be particularly vigilant now, as the emails sent with replacement information are often in the name of the seller but might have a slight difference in initial or second name (or omission of one). They often will use a generic email address – so one must check each email to be sure that the email address is the same as the initial information provided by the seller.

Any changes made regarding payment details must be done by the seller in person if possible, or telephonically verifying the email, and not via email alone. Attorneys need to have a strict FICA protocol in place, and any bank detail changes need to be accompanied by the required verification of the bank accounts in question.

“In fact, any change in the normal protocol should be questioned,” advises Henkes.

Another scam is one where someone posing as a buyer will approach a seller privately and show keen interest, and put in an offer to purchase. After a few days, the purported buyer will contact the seller asking for a document to be signed to help him get his home loan approved, which the seller then does (often without reading too much of the document or questioning too much) and then discovers a third party claiming they bought his home. On further inspection, it will be found that the scam artist (the first buyer) has been marketing this home online as an agent, by hijacking the photos off various websites, and has found a buyer, who is also unaware that something is wrong – and who might have paid a large deposit over to the supposed “agent”.

Documents can be falsified, email addresses cloned, and the list goes on and on, so one needs to be very wary and check every detail when it comes to property sale transactions, says Henkes.

If dealing with an agent, buyers and sellers must check that the agent is registered with the Estate Agency Affairs Board and has a valid Fidelity Fund Certificate – this can be done online by going to www.eaab.org.za.

If a home is to be sold privately or through an agent, sellers should seek the guidance of their own attorney in drawing up their purchase agreement. It is the seller’s prerogative to use their own attorney to handle the transfer, and they must not be “bullied” into using the agency’s attorney.

“Even better,” says Henkes, “is to let your attorney handle the whole transaction – let him or her conclude the sale and deal with the transfer. In this way, you have one person or entity handling the whole transaction and fewer chances of a scam artist being able to get involved.”

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