ACT Police has launched an investigation into an ACT real estate scam where a Canberra property was sold by overseas fraudsters while the owner was living in South Africa.
It is understood the Macgregor property owner recently discovered the house had been sold about four months earlier after contacting her property manager to query why she was not receiving rental payments.
ACT Police has taken control of the investigation after consulting with police in South Africa to establish how the woman - who lives in South Africa - was defrauded.
"Police will investigate a series of exchanges which led to the sale of the property without the owner’s knowledge or consent, and the disbursement of the funds generated by the deception," a spokeswoman said in a statement.
"ACT Policing has joined with the ACT Office of Regulatory Services and ACT Attorney General Simon Corbell in warning home owners to be vigilant of scammers, particularly if an owner is residing or travelling overseas."
Police have also issued a warning of the need for vigilance in the wake of the suspected scam.
"The absence of the home owner and an inability to personally review documentation which may be fraudulent provides leverage for the scammers to operate," the spokeswoman said.
"Police would urge home owners residing overseas or travelling overseas for a lengthy period to establish robust protocols which protect and confirm their bona fides."
Anyone who suspected they may be the victim of a scam is urged to contact police on 131 444.
The exact details of the Macgregor scam have not been publicly released and it is not known how much the property was sold for.
Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the government was very concerned "a scam of this magnitude may have affected residents in the ACT".
He said the government did not anticipate publicly releasing information at present as the facts were not yet fully clear and the matter may be the subject of an investigation.
Mr Corbell revealed documentation confirming the suspected fraudulent property sale was handed to the Office of Regulatory Services on July 11.
He said the office was reviewing the circumstances of the sale.
Real Estate Institute ACT chief executive Ron Bell was concerned that such a scam may have been carried out in the ACT.
"We've experienced one sale that I know of in Canberra, which was in Macgregor. I'm not sure of the consequences of that but it probably means somebody lost a lot of money unnecessarily and I'm not sure what we put in place to prevent this."
Mr Corbell last week issued a media release reminding the real estate industry to be vigilant with property sales, particularly where the seller is overseas. He said the ORS was engaging with the real estate industry to determine whether additional anti-fraud measures were merited.
ACT Police referred earlier enquires to the Australian Federal Police, which then referred The Canberra Times to South African authorities.
Authorities believe it may be the first such scam in the ACT but there have been similar cases in WA including two successful sales and six attempted real estate frauds.
The alarming scams triggered the largest ever overhaul of WA's property industry and led to an international police effort involving WA Police and AFP working with their counterparts in South Africa and Nigeria.
There have been two successful arrests, including one earlier this month where three people were charged over the attempted fraudulent sale of a unit in Mandurah, south of Perth.
Detective Senior Sergeant Dom Blackshaw from WA Police's Major Fraud Squad has been heavily involved in the WA investigations. He says fraudsters will go to elaborate lengths to carry out the sophisticated scams.
Although he was unaware of the ACT case, he said it seemed South Africa was heavily linked to the WA scams and it appeared victims were targeted either through stolen mail or from their computer being hacked.
He said the scammers would typically contact the property manager, pretending to be the real owner and request a change to their contact details.
He said scammers would "groom" the agents, often using forged documents that look legitimate to the average person.
"It's a process of research and learning and they're doing that through the agents and trying to find out as much as they can to get documents that maybe have signatures of the owners, lease agreements, that sort of thing," he said.
"Once they've armed themselves with that, then they go to the selling agent and use those documents to try and validate that they are the true owner.
"Generally what we've found is these properties haven't been mortgaged. There is a title deed, but they've come up with reasons why they may not be able to produce them. One was that the owner had died, but they produced a death certificate. Any document that's required or asked for by the selling agent has been produced."
He said in the WA cases, the agents had acted in good faith and sold the properties to innocent purchasers. For the real owners, the only recourse was to seek compensation from the WA government.
Any queries about regulations around ACT property sales should be directed to the Office of Regulatory Services on 6207 3000 and select option 8.
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