Home' Scoop : Scoop 68 Winter Edition Contents 80
Real estate, fake sales
Returning from an overseas journey can be
bittersweet, but there’s always great comfort in
coming home: the feeling of sleeping in your
own bed, that familiar house smell, being able
to make the 2am toilet dash without crashing
into a wall. But for one Ballajura family, who
returned from working overseas in Nigeria, it
was the stuff of nightmares – they found
a new owner living in their house. Con artists
purported to be living in Nigeria had sold the
house for $400,000 – the original owners, who
were renting out their house while away, were
none the wiser.
Theirs isn’t the only case of its type in
Western Australia. In 2010, Wembley Downs
retiree Roger Mildenhall returned from South
Africa to find his Karrinyup investment property
had been sold by scammers. A day after Roger’s
story made papers, another near-identical fraud
emerged: doctor Peter D’Alessandro was just
days off settling a West Perth apartment he’d
bought for $775,000, when the original owner,
also living in South Africa, found out about
the scam and brought it to a halt.
“Real estate scams often involve an
absent owner from WA,” says Hillyard.
“Scammers find out about the details of
In 2012, after statistics showed West
Australians were losing $1.5 million per
month in advance-fee frauds, WA Police
formed a taskforce to tackle the problem.
“Project Sunbird kicked off because we had
an increasing amount of people reporting
to the fraud squad that they’d lost money,”
says David Hillyard.
Earlier this year, Nigerian authorities
spent two weeks in Perth with Project
Sunbird to work on the Jette Jacobs case.
A man has since been arrested.
In February of this year, Jenny made
West Australian history by becoming the
first scam victim to have money returned
40 per cent of the six-figure sum she
lost. Given that it’s notoriously difficult to
return funds to the victim of a con trick,
particularly when it was perpetrated by
wire, Project Sunbird tries to halt the
deceptions in their tracks.
Officers scan for abnormal transactions,
such as a wire transfer from an Australian
name to an African name, then write to
that household with a letter of advice.
“Six out of ten stop sending money,” says
Hillyard. “To the others, we send
a more detailed letter saying you need
to talk to us, which knocks out the four
remaining.” If they’ve sent over $100,000
and still won’t stop, the police pay them
a visit. But at that point, the victims have
invested their money, their time, and
sometimes their heart in the deception.
“They can’t afford not to believe it.”
the home management, and contact the real
estate agent saying, ‘These are my new details,
this is my new bank account’, so they can take
over the identity of the property owners. After
a while, they give instructions for the company
to sell the property.”
“It’s certainly happening more now than it
did before,” says Peter Cutajar, legal counsel
for insurer First Title. “It’s not just in West
Africa: organised crime groups are working from
all over the world. There’s even locally based
ones. Crime is a copycat-type thing, whatever is
working somewhere will catch on here.
“It happens particularly when you’re an
investor and you don’t live in the home, so you’d
be more vulnerable to it happening without you
knowing,” says Cutajar. Not having a mortgage
poses another risk. “When there is no mortgage
on the house, the bank doesn’t need to be
involved. It becomes a very complicated process.
You could be in court for years.”
On a smaller scale, confidence tricksters
are stealing photos of houses from real estate
websites and posting them to sites like Gumtree,
posing as homeowners seeking renters. Los
Angeles native Claire Lopaty, who moved to
Perth to nanny, fell victim to this strain of scam
when she posted a Gumtree ad, looking for
a place to rent with two friends. Promptly, a man
called Brian Place answered her ad, sending
photos of a property he claimed couldn’t be
shown until he received bond money.
Interestingly, Brian, who claimed to be an
independent realtor, agreed to meet face to face.
“He looked like he was late for a court case or
something, he looked like a mess,” Lopaty says.
“But at the time we thought he just looked like
an Aussie guy, super casual.” At the meeting,
he showed them a passport, which Lopaty now
believes is fake, and asked for them to transfer
money so he could verify it with the ‘Australian
Bond Board’. “It sounds ridiculous now but I
don’t know anything about real estate, especially
Australian real estate,” says Lopaty. Between the
three of them, they transferred him a sum of
about $1000, which they never saw again.
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