By Jean Choo
With the widespread use of digital technologies and e-commerce, most businesses now have an online presence, and it has never been easier to purchase goods and services, needless to say, to even look for homes to buy or rent via online channels.
A simple online search will present a myriad of options on property listing sites as well as lesser known websites. While it certainly makes viewing and choosing properties a breeze, there are still risks involved, particularly for unsuspecting would-be tenants or buyers.
Recently, there have been a rise in the number of tenants and home buyers who have fallen victim to fraudulent online property listings and impersonators posing as property agents, placing fake advertisements on property listing platforms.
These listings often involve properties that are on the market and can be found in various popular portals, along with the fraudsters’ contact numbers. When contacted by interested tenants looking to view the property, these imposters will ask for a cash deposit to secure a viewing appointment, and once payment is made, they will then make off with the money and become uncontactable.
Victims of such online property fraud cases range from young foreign students and foreign workers who may be less familiar with the Singapore property market, as well as senior citizens who may be less digital-savvy. Most are not able to accurately verify the identity of the imposter agent and the legitimacy of the property listed. Here are some tips on how to stay vigilant and avoid becoming a statistic.
One of the first key steps in looking for a home to rent is reviewing property listings. In the digital age, most folks will typically browse listings on websites to shortlist suitable units. PropNex has a collection of rental and also sale listings on its website.
Increasingly there have been property listings on “alternative platforms” such as online marketplace and social networking or messaging platforms. For listings on such alternative platforms, potential buyers and tenants should be wary and exercise further caution to verifying these listings.
With impersonation crimes on the rise, perhaps the surest way to prevent yourself from falling prey to these impersonators, is to conduct a check of the property agent’s details in the property listing against the Council for Estate Agencies’ (CEA) Public Register.
The quickest way is to search for the property agent in the register via his/her advertised phone number. If the search does not lead to a property agent’s profile page, it means that the phone number is not registered with CEA by any property agent. This is one of the clearest indications that the advertisement is possibly fake. To be doubly sure, if you locate the property agent in CEA’s Public Register, you can contact the said property agent via the number in CEA’s Public Register to verify the property listing.
On the CEA Public Register, one is also able to check the validity of the agent’s registration status. All property agents in Singapore must be registered with the CEA through a licensed property agency. Each registered property agent has a unique CEA registration number, e.g. R123456A. It is an offence for any individual to carry out estate agency work without a valid registration. Do note that there have been cases of swindlers using profiles of inactive agents or agents with expired registration numbers to avoid detection.
Is the agent asking you for a cash payment as monthly rental or deposit for the lease of an HDB flat, or down payment for the sale and purchase of properties? That should sound off some warning bells. Property agents are not authorised to handle certain monies.
In addition, protect yourself and prevent disputes by using verifiable payment modes such as crossed cheques or bank transfers and ensure that the payment goes directly to the landlord.
If the property agent asks for a fee or deposit before you view the property or even before meeting them in person, you should be wary. In a proper setting, the agent will set up a viewing for the interested party, so that they can view the property in person. After viewing the property and upon both parties (landlord and tenant) agreeing on the lease terms, a letter of intent will be provided for the payment of a security deposit. The security deposit is usually 1 month’s rent for a 1-year lease and 2 months’ rent for a 2-year lease.
Specifically, for sale and purchase, always call and speak to your lawyer when you receive emails requesting for payments which looked dubious. Tell tale signs include bank account number which is different from the law firm’s bank account number, different email address used by the sender (e.g. email@example.com VS firstname.lastname@example.org), and request for payment is not in accordance with the timelines your lawyer had advised you.
When in doubt, always call the law firm to check before making any payment because some impersonators are known to even hack into the email account of law firms to reply to buyer’s request for verification.
If you suspect that the property agent whom you have liaised with is an impersonator, you may check if the person is a registered salesperson via the CEA Public Register.
If you are not able to verify the identity of the agent on the CEA Public Register and you have already transferred payment, it is likely that you have already fallen victim and it is highly advised that you file a police report immediately. A police report can be lodged in person or online at this website: https://eservices.police.gov.sg/content/policehubhome/homepage/police-report.html. Typically, after a report is lodged, a representative from the Singapore Police Force will contact you via telephone call for more details.
In another variation, fraudsters will target landlords or their agents, pretending to be interested foreign tenants looking to rent a place. They will then claim to have made payment for the deposit, after which the landlord will receive fake emails purportedly from online payment platforms asking for a fee before the payment made by the tenant can be released to them.
While it may be hard to identify fake tenants from genuine ones, landlords can protect themselves by asking that payment be done in verifiable payment modes such as crossed cheques.
If the listing seems too good to be true, it always helps to double check and verify. Both home buyers and tenants alike should do their part to conduct their due diligence more vigorously. For those who are not as digitally savvy, the best option is to ask a friend or family member to help conduct these checks and verification. Alternatively, you may engage a trusted PropNex salesperson.
Have a peace of mind, check out rental and sale listings on PropNex’s website.
September 28, 2022
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