Have property scams grown in the pandemic?
Home buyers should verify the authenticity of the real estate practitioners they are dealing with
By Yanika Liew
If you are new to the property scene, dipping your toes in can feel like taking a dive. It can be intimidating to wade through stories of digital impersonations, stolen deposits and backdoor deals. The digitalisation of commerce has skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic. Enterprising companies are launching platforms for their services in a changing market and property is no different. With more real estate businesses moving online, it is easier than ever for fraudulent transactions to take place.
Take the recent cases in Singapore where scams involved convincing victims to pay a home-viewing deposit to secure an appointment. Armed with unregistered identity cards, scammers impersonated property agents by sending a picture of their credentials to the victims. There are multiple instances of scammers uploading fraudulent listings on websites. By the time their victims realise they have been duped, it is already too late.
“Scammers use technology and social media to reach out to prospects more easily. It is very disturbing and there is very little anyone can do to help buyers and sellers who have been cheated by unregistered estate agents or unregistered real estate negotiators,” Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents (MIEA) president Chan Ai Cheng said.
Real estate transactions are a gold mine for scammers, as the process involves large amounts of money being transferred to another account. Scammers can create fake online websites to get customers to bank in the money to them, Propnex Realty chief operating officer Evon Heng commented, who is also MIEA secretary-general.
According to both Chan and Heng, many transactions involve collecting a deposit in a sale or rental, and this money is kept by the individuals. It is a very common case for scammers to abort the deal without returning the refund, causing the buyer to lose out on the deposit. Whereas a registered agent is required to transfer any and all deposits to an account managed by the firm, under the client’s name. This ensures that the buyer is protected by the law should anything happen, significantly reducing the risk of exploitation.
Another common scam involving property is the sale of a project that is non-existent, such as the scam promising victims affordable housing. Scammers claim they have access to units from a high-demand affordable housing scheme, without complying with the eligibility criteria.
While there are instances of affluent victims being caught up in these scams, Chan reports that a majority of property scam victims are in the B40 category, the second being the M40. These groups are less aware or experienced in real estate matters. Similarly, those located away from the city, in small, rural towns are disproportionately targeted. These areas are especially vulnerable due to fewer safety nets available. With B40 families having fewer resources than other income groups, they have more to lose and fewer pathways to receive support, whether from authorities or their community.
So who do you have to watch out for? Chan outlined a framework the public can use when identifying these scams.
“The case of scams defined as defraud or embezzlement in an estate agency transactions is predominantly by illegal brokers as they are not regulated by law and also because they need not operate via a firm,” Chan said.
Real estate practitioners are required to follow strict guidelines when advertising, which include the practitioner’s real estate negotiator (REN) or real estate agent (REA) number and the registration number of the firm they represent. This is crucial information that the public can use to verify with the Board of Valuers, Appraisers, Estate Agents and Property Managers (BOVAEA). Those who are unable to present proper paperwork should be questioned. Chan also warned the public against real estate practitioners who pressure their clients into financial commitments, more so when they seem to be withholding information.
What can you do?
When you realise you have fallen for a scam, the first instinct is to panic. MIEA reported that one of the barriers to victims coming forward was the embarrassment they faced when they admitted to falling for a scam. Particularly in regards to transactions that do not involve a large sum of money, victims seldom choose to confront the situation.
Regardless of such inhibitions, Chan recommends victims lodge a report to the police. If the scam involves a housing development, victims should lodge a report with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT). These reports will be able to provide authorities with data, assisting not just yourself, but future victims. In order to warn the rest of the public of such instances, she added that victims could contact the press for further outreach.
Homebuyers are encouraged to work only with registered RENs or REAs, whose authenticity can also be verified via a written authorisation from the owners of the property being sold. In the case of homeowners eager to rent or sell their property, reach out to professionals rather than appoint an unregistered broker, even if it is someone you trust. Especially when making deposits, ask yourself these questions; could it be an individual’s bank account you are sending your money to? If it is a company, is it a registered one?
“By no means it’s all safe and well, dealing with registered persons but at least they are known, the regulatory bodies are able to take more immediate action or even deregister them, there is accountability when one is registered,” Chan said.
As more and more Malaysians become comfortable handling transactions online, their vigilance begins to diminish.
“Not only are property scams more prominent, but other scams are also. Research and verification are vital for any transaction or purchase,” Heng said.
She noted that the digitalisation of real estate created other challenges for homebuyers and estate practitioners. Many people enjoy visiting the unit itself or its sales gallery when looking for property. These are preferences that will be easier to accommodate with the easing of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, but the trend of digitalisation is not likely to falter in the coming years.
As the property industry continues to evolve, there will be new challenges for all stakeholders involved. Learn more about protecting yourself in real estate transactions by visiting MIEA’s public awareness campaign, via www.instagram.com/myrealagents/