Susan, a real estate agent, was contacted by a “Mr Brown” from the UK who was intending to purchase a certain property that Susan had listed online.  She thought that the email was drafted in unusual English for a native English speaker, but Mr Brown seemed to know a lot about the area where the property was located, so she entered into email discussions with him, and sent him an Agreement for Sale and Purchase for him to make an offer.

He asked for a referral for a lawyer and Susan passed his details on to a lawyer she knew.  The use of referrals by scammers is now becoming common and is designed to create an air of authenticity to the scam. By using the good name of a reputable professional, some people may lower their guard and assume that checks have already been made about the legitimacy of the deal. Fortunately the lawyer had the same uneasy feeling as her about the authenticity of this purchaser.

Soon enough the purchaser started asking if he could pay the deposit, before the agreement was even unconditional.  Both Susan and the lawyer explained that this was not necessary yet, but he continued to ask for Susan’s agency’s trust account details in order for him to make payment of the deposit.

Within a week of her sending the bank details, Susan received a “cheque” for the value of the deposit ($80,000).  She spoke to the lawyer involved, and her manager, and together, after much investigation, they received confirmation from the agency’s bank that the cheque was a fake.

Susan later found out that the scammer’s intention was for her to bank the cheque and then around a week or so later, he would request some or all of it back urgently when the purchase fell through.  Susan would then pay it back and the original cheque would bounce (as some of these cheques take much longer than the usual time frames, usually a month or more to actually clear).  The agency would have lost up to $80,000!

Unfortunately the number and type of scams is increasing and many are by email.  Some are also by post and by phone.  There are a huge variety of scams, from inheritance-related scams, to scams targeting unsuspecting real estate agents, lawyers, hoteliers, accountants etc.

Most of the scams intend to either obtain money as above or to carry out money laundering using a person’s fake details.  Other scams require you to ring an overseas number, for which you will then be charged huge amounts of money.

So how do you know if you are being scammed?

There are several ways to help you work out whether you may be facing a scam:

  • Read the email carefully. Are any words spelt incorrectly? Is there inappropriate use of grammar or syntax? It is very common in these scams for the spelling and grammar to be incorrect as they are often not run by native English speakers.
  • Unusual/unnatural English is used (e.g. “Top of the morning to you”).
  • You do not know the sender.

In relation to a purchase of a property:

  • The “purchaser” seems overly focused on paying a deposit, even before a contract is signed or unconditional;
  • The “purchaser” is very keen to pay a high deposit (so they can then request a high amount to be paid back).

How can you avoid being scammed?

Here are some tips as agents for dealing with a situation where you have received a suspicious email, call, or letter, from a prospective client:

  • Keep an eye out for the above tell-tale signs.
  • Do some research.  Many common scams are now listed on scam websites and an internet search of the names used in the emails (potentially followed by the word “scam”) will often lead to confirmation of a scam.
  • If you have given away the agency’s bank details to them, notify your bank immediately so they can put a fraud alert on the account or close any accounts if necessary.
  • If someone suspicious has paid a deposit to your trust account, ensure that you wait for confirmation from your bank that the funds are actually cleared before you pay out on them (which can take a significant amount of time when they are from overseas, so it pays to check directly with your bank about the particular deposit).

If you are worried that you or someone you know is being scammed you should seek legal advice before you respond to the communication.  We can help.