How to avoid property scams

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PHOTO: iStock

There are various ways in which these con artists operate. The most common is to create a fake profile on social media and claim to work for a well-known property group.

While the Internet is an extremely useful tool, it has also made it easier for criminals to prey on prospective buyers and tenants.

Over the last month, RE/MAX of Southern Africa has received several reports of various real estate agent scams taking place.

Adrian Goslett, Regional Director and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa, warns South Africans to be careful of suspicious online advertising and to ask for an agent’s credentials if ever they are uncertain.

“Times are tough on a lot of South Africans at the moment, which means that we are likely to see an increase in criminal activity as people become more and more desperate. To avoid becoming the next victim of a con artist, always double-check the agent’s credentials and be cautious of anyone who reaches out to you over social media or other online platforms,” he warns.

There are various ways in which these con artists operate. The most common is to create a fake profile on social media and claim to work for a well-known property group. The agents then appear to be legitimised by the brand, but are in fact in no way affiliated to the office.

“The best way to spot these tricksters is to ask which specific RE/MAX office they belong to and then to confirm with that office that such an agent exists. You should also be able to find the agent on the brand’s website. Other giveaways are if the profile is newly created and if there are very few posts and friend connections on the profile,” warns Goslett.

In all scams, the scammer will attempt to get money for a property that they are not in a legal position to offer for rental or sale. The fraudster might place an advertisement for a property or contact a person directly and usually offers a deal that is too good to be true.

Often the advertisement will include photos of the property, and in some cases, the scammer might even include a fake contract which is ready to be signed. The property could either be a real listing copied from property portals, or it could be entirely fictitious.

After making contact, the scammer will request that money be paid directly into his/her account, usually in the guise of a deposit or possibly the first month’s rent be paid upfront. Once the money has been transferred, the scammer then disappears.

Red flags to watch out for:

• A reputable agency will be able to provide all the information about the agent and their listings. If an agent is unable or unwilling to share their office information with you, then this should be a red flag.

• Avoid transferring the money without physically walking through the property yourself. A red flag should be raised if the agent expects payment based on website images alone.

• Reputable agents have a vetting process, which includes a credit check and other document verifications. Beware of agents who are willing to sign contracts without following the correct protocols.

• Be wary of agents who are never able to meet you in person.

• No large sums of money should be paid unless signed contracts are involved. If an agent asks for money to be transferred without any documentation in place, this should be another warning sign.

“Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to avoid being scammed, as con artists are getting increasingly sophisticated. Sometimes, you will just need to trust your gut. If at any stage of the process you feel there is something wrong, it is rushed with unwarranted pressure, information is withheld, or it all seems too good to be true – walk away. Pay attention to the warning signs and only work with agents from a reputable agency that can be verified and trusted,” Goslett advises.

George Herald