File picture: John Raoux

Johannesburg - They pose as government officials, attorneys, or do-gooders from humanitarian organisations, to swindle estate agents into letting them occupy expensive houses in Joburg’s plush northern suburbs.

This scheming gang spot a house for sale, go to view it, and then offer an amount close to the selling price and ask if they can move in within a week.

Once they have occupied the house without paying a cent, it becomes a lengthy and expensive legal battle to have them removed.

Donna Sipman, a property consultant at Re/Max Masters who handles property sales in the Blair Atholl Estate and Bryanston area, got close to being scammed four times this year.

Although she never allowed them to move into the houses, she said the syndicate have been known to sign the transfer documents to convince parties involved that they are serious.

If deposits are asked for, they are delayed. If guarantees are not issued, fake documentation is provided to “prove” the process is genuine.

In June a well-spoken man phoned Sipman, saying he was from Namibia and runs an investment bank.

The man said he wanted his business to have an address in South Africa near an airport with a helipad. He went on to say his business has high-profile clients including government officials. He wanted a big house with a boardroom.

Properties in Blair Atholl range from R8 million to R60m.

The man came to view a R22m house which Sipman was selling.

“At this stage, I’d been burned twice already, so I told him he had to make out a bank-guaranteed cheque with his offer to purchase,” she said. “The scammers need to move into the properties quickly. They know how the sales process works and can even provide substantiating documentation to legitimise their claims of funds to make the purchase.

“But they never produce the cash and their excuses range from delays with the reserve bank, cash not arriving from the source, money leaving their account and not arriving at the conveyancing attorney’s trust account, and others, related to religious restrictions.”

Like the three before him, the crook delayed payment for more than five weeks. “I’d heard about this syndicate from other agents before being targeted. Hence, I never let the fake buyers occupy the houses before making payment.”

She said there have been istances in which fake buyer have occupied homes before paying: “If the house is already empty or available for the buyer to move in immediately, the buyer could conceivably, if all relevant documents had been produced, move into the house and only pay occupational rent until the bank guarantee goes through.”

The fraud remains undetected until the seller, who is kept waiting for his money, loses his patience. Then a breach notice and cancellation of the purchase because of non-performance is sent by the conveyancer. This is when the expensive legal process of evicting the fraudster starts, said Sipman.

Other agents have had their share of dealing with perpetrators in the past.

Brenda Gilbert, an agent from Pam Golding who operates in the Dainfern area, said these individuals offer to pay an amount very close to the selling offer and usually want early occupation.

“It’s strange that someone would go out of their way to try and stay in a house and not pay for it. I had a property for sale in Illovo for over R10m, and a person made an offer and wanted to move in immediately, but hadn’t paid.

“I didn’t let them occupy the house. It is difficult to discern whether people are frauds. The only way to prove they can afford the house is if they pay.”

Another agent, Jonathan Broekman from Home of Distinction, operating in Bryanston, said this syndicate has been running for about five years, and his company have included a clause in their agreement that it is not possible to occupy the house until all money has been paid. “People seem legitimate, but you can’t always trust them.

“We worry when a buyer wants to pay full price or very close to it, and also wants to move in next week.”

Adrian Goslett, chief executive Re/Max of Southern Africa, said buyers and sellers who work through a reputable real estate agency have less chance of falling prey to fraudsters.

“Professional estate agents have access to various tools and systems to help them scrutinise property sales more thoroughly. Sellers need to be vigilant and take the necessary precautions to avoid falling prey to such scams.”

[email protected]

Saturday Star