How safe is your house from scammers?
| Is your house being sold out from under you by Nigerian
scammers as you read these words?
It's that fear the Police Major Fraud Squad, Landgate and the Real Estate Supervisory Board were seeking to ease as they attempted to soothe public concerns about the con that resulted in one man's half-million dollar house being sold without his knowledge or consent.
Their message was simple: trust us, our systems are safe and secure.
Not for Roger Mildenhall - he lost his $485,000 Karrinyup investment property to Nigerian scammers while he was in South Africa.
The scammers sent his agents fake documents and then convinced the agents to sell the property and desposit the sale proceeds to an offshore account in China.
Landgate's Bruce Roberts says everyone acknowledges Mr Mildenhall being defrauded was a poor outcome.
"What we need to understand is why that happened and the circumstances that arose so that we can put into place some checks and balances that may help us deal with that situation in the future."
The stunning success of the scam and the apparent ease with which it was carried out, raised serious questions about the diligence of real estate agents and the security of land transactions in WA.
Detective Senior Sergeant Don Heise says emails authorising the sale were sent from Nigeria and should have raised alarm bells.
"On most occasions, the emails show poor English. That's a very solid point that people should look out for when dealing with sales from overseas."
He says the emails came from Lagos.
"This happened over a period of time between the suspect and the real estate agent and settlement agent in Perth here which has allowed the sale of the house to progress through the forwarding from that country a number of documents that assisted in that sale."
Landgate, which regulates property transactions in WA, was keen to reassure the public that this was an aberration in an otherwise well functioning system.
"It is a safe and secure system, we do well over 300,000 land transactions every year," Mr Roberts said.
But after a 40 minute media conference with Mr Roberts and the others involved in a multi-agency investigation into the fraud, many questions remain unanswered.
Explanations of how the fraud happened remain incomplete and the assurances that it won't happen again are less than reassuring.
Mr Roberts says it was a sophisticated scam.
"We have to remember that this was a very sophisticated fraud. It's the first time we at Landgate have seen this type of fraud in WA."
The Real Estate and Business Agent Supervisory Board's Mark Cuomo echoed what Landgate was saying.
"This is a very sophisticated fraud, the like of it hasn't been seen in Western Australia before."
The description is important.
With a "safe and secure system" most people can understand that a sufficiently "sophisticated" scam might be able to thwart even the best defences.
People might have more trouble trusting real estate agents and accepting the system is safe and secure if the scam was described as "simplistic".
But just how sophisticated was this scam?
Well, not very according to the victim of the fraud, Roger Mildenhall.
When he reviewed the documents sent to the agent authorising the sale, he was shocked they'd accepted his forged signature.
"The forged signature was so infantile that it could've been done by a five year-old. The writing was in lower case and was not joined up writing at all. Nothing at all like my signature which she has on file and also the settlement agent has on file."
On that assessment, a simple cross check of the signatures should have brought the fraudulent transaction to a screaming halt.
When challenged on his description of the fraud as sophisticated, Mr Cuomo held the line.
"I'm not at liberty to give away details of the investigation but from what's been described, this is a very sophisticated set of documentation and there's a long series of engagements that have added to the complexity of that."
Questioned further, Mr Cuomo conceded his assessment of the sophistication of the scam wasn't based on his own review of the evidence - he hadn't actually even seen the documents.
"You've got your view and I've got mine."
The public was also left to form its own views about the conduct of the real estate and settlement agents.
No-one was prepared to give any insight into what steps, if any, the agent had taken to verify the identity of the seller, or the authenticity of the documents.
Detective Senior Sergeant Heise wouldn't comment.
"Our investigation is still continuing with the real estate agent and the settlment agent and that'll be something that comes to light further on down the track."
Landgate's Bruce Roberts took a similar line.
"Obviously the investigations are still continuing in terms of the circumstances and liability in relation to the action of the real estate agent and settlement agent. I can't comment on that, it's still an ongoing investigation."
Landgate is conducting an investigation of its own, into whether there was something in its own procedures and processes that could have detected and stopped the fraud says Mr Roberts.
"I have to say though, at registration its too late usually in this fraud scenario. Usually in the fraud scenario, the money has gone."
So, the solution must reside at the other end of the process - the point of sale. And that means the real estate agents.
But with investigations by the WA Police Major Fraud Squad, the Real Estate Supervisory Board and Landgate still underway, the immediate fix is limited to an exhortation to real estate and settlement agents to be more careful.
The measures recommended, and they are only recommendations, read like a commonsense set of guidelines most people would probably expect agents to be following already.
Detective Senior Sergeant Heise says agents should be wary of absentee land sales, late notifications of change of address, requests for urgent sale, promises of further business, any documents from Nigeria, and emails written in poor English.
"That they double check, triple check the processes that they go through before they let the sale happen.
"These emails were only brief, they didn't go into a whole gambit of conversation, it's just that the way the emails were structured, probably a little bit more notice should have been taken of that."
These new protections are not mandatory.
Just what checks a real estate or settlement agent makes still rests in the hands of the agent themselves.
Any change in regulatory requirements will have to wait until the various investigations are completed.
In the meantime, Mark Cuomo says the best protection is not new systems, just sharper, more aware agents.
"The best protection in this industry is the vigilance of the agents and we've been very concerned to make sure they have everything before them to make sure they know what to look for."
WA property owners will be hoping their agent is one of the sharp ones.
Article from: www.abc.net.au