A woman whose house and identity was stolen by overseas scammers has been forced to sue the government to retrieve her money.
International fraudsters, who are still at large, pocketed $430,000 when they sold the four-bedroom Canberra house in 2014 in a sophisticated scam spanning several months and countries, including South Africa, Australia and Indonesia.
Fresh details of the crime were aired in the ACT Supreme Court last week, as court documents reveal the thieves went to elaborate lengths to steal the home, conning real estate agents, lawyers and a bank along the way.
However, even though her home was sold without her knowledge, the woman is not entitled to reclaim it.
Despite an international police investigation, the fraudster is yet to be caught and it is unclear how many people may have been responsible for the sophisticated scam that shocked Canberra's real estate industry.
The victim was living in South Africa at the time, but the fraud only came to light several months after the sale when she contacted her agent about maintenance on the property and because she hadn't received any statements for almost nine months.
"I have never given instructions to anyone to sell the property on my behalf. I never had any intention of selling the property as I wanted to keep it for as long as I could and then pass it on to my children," the victim said in an affidavit.
The agent reported the crime to police within 24 hours of talking to the owner.
It is believed to be only the third time an Australian property has been sold fraudulently. There were two successful sales and six attempted property frauds in Western Australia, triggering a major overhaul of the state's property industry.
The fraud stripped the victim of any right to the property, which was legally transferred to the innocent couple who bought the house.
The woman is now suing the ACT government for statutory compensation, seeking damages for the property value, stamp duty and legal costs and lost rental income.
The house was sold earlier this year for more than $510,000.
The government accepts the woman is an innocent victim of fraud but disagrees that she is entitled to recover damages from the government.
"The plaintiff has a remedy against the fraudster under section 154 of the Act and must first take action against him or her before she may take action against the defendant," the government said in its submission.
The case was heard in the ACT Supreme Court last week and Associate Judge David Mossop has reserved his decision in the case.
The fraud spanned several months over 2013 and 2014 and began when the scammer impersonated the woman, contacting her property manager on a fake email address and asking to change their contact details with "immediate effect" claiming her old email, which they provided, had been compromised. They also provided a contact number.
It is unclear how they knew who the woman's property manager was or her old email address.
It is believed the fake email address may have originated in South Africa.
The fraudster instructed the agent to sell the home, even telling them to sell it for $400,000 without contacting her first or to get in touch if any offers below that were made.
The scammer also provided a signed authority for the agent to act on her behalf for insurance claims or enquiries about the property.
The agent told the fraudster the suggested $400,000 asking price would be undervaluing the property and they should aim for a higher figure.
But the fraudster persisted, instructing the agent to "use their discretion to achieve the best price without delay".
The house eventually sold for $430,000 and the fraudster again impersonated the owner and engaged lawyers in Canberra to act for them for the sale.
When the lawyers asked for her loan account number, the scammer claimed the documents were destroyed in a fire.
Contracts were then exchanged with the brazen criminal forging the victim's signature on the contract.
They also asked for the money from the sale to be deposited into an Indonesian bank account and even called the real estate agent.
The scammer's lawyers were able to get the victim's certificate of title and discharge of mortgage from safe custody at her bank.
The sale settled in February 2014 and the fraudster again forged the victim's signature on the transfer.
The scam was complete and the fraudster rich.
Several months passed and it was only in July 2014 that the real owner learnt that the home she purchased in 1991 had been sold. She had paid off her home loan in 2005.
The woman, who moved to South Africa in 2002, said that in the early years she had monthly contact with the real estate agent, but "as the years went on", she would hear from them from about six times a year and only if there was "tenant issue, maintenance issue, insurance and rates to be paid or if the rent was to be reviewed".
Her lawyer Michael Orlov argues his client should be compensated under the Land Titles Act.
"The facts establish that a fraud has been committed and that the plaintiff has been deprived of land as a result, but not the identity of the fraudster," he said in a submission to the court.
In court, Mr Orlov described the fraudster as an "anxious seller", keen to get whatever they could for the property.
An international police investigation failed to catch the scammer, with ACT Policing recently confirming the investigation was now considered closed.
The fraud raised questions about whether enough has been done to protect Canberra home owners from being scammed and prevent another scam from happening.
"The ACT government has made attempts to educate the real estate industry in an attempt to prevent future instances of this fraud," a government spokesman said.
After the fraud, the then Office of Regulatory Services provided advice to the territory's real estate industry on ways to minimise the risk of a similar scam.
The spokesman said agents were advised to be vigilant and ensure they had strict owner identification processes.
With Megan Gorrey