Illustration: Colin Daniel

What if someone told you that for as little as US$100 (about R1 070) you could get a share of the profits made from buying and selling well-priced properties in the United States, where transfer costs are low and there’s no short supply of distressed sellers?

Apparently, there’s a company that snaps up, restores and sells houses fast in a market where eager buyers are also a dime a dozen. This quick buying and selling of property for profit is called “flipping” in the real estate business.

To share in the profits, you pay a once-off joining fee of $249, and $50 a year thereafter, but to sweeten the deal, the company that is offering it, Flipping4Profit (F4P), will reward you – in dollars – for every person you get to become a member of the scheme.

F4P is actively recruiting members in South Africa, but experts in property and financial planning have serious concerns.

Ricardo Teixeira, a management consultant at Acsis and an authority on investing in property, says a legitimate pooled investment would never include a referral commission structure that rewards individual investors for introducing new investors, or a network that offers lifestyle benefits to members for growing a network – as F4P does.

“Marketing of a pooled investment can only be done by a registered financial services provider (FSP). F4P is not a registered FSP.”

According to F4P, “the greatest transfer of wealth is happening right now”. F4P is apparently branching out all over the world, hosting webinars (internet seminars) everywhere from the US to Russia.

At presentations in Durban (and posted online), prospective members are told that “property investors make some money, but property renovators become seriously rich” and that “more millionaires will be made by this global recession than at any other time in history”.

Durban actuary Nic Smit, who attended a F4P presentation recently, says it left him feeling uncomfortable.

“A large part of the presentation dealt with how you can make money by referring other people to the scheme. There are a lot of commissions being paid to several parties on new money entering the scheme. The performance of the investment would have to be incredibly strong in order to give the investor a return, plus pay commissions to all the hangers-on.

“They show images of expensive cars and big houses, and ask, ‘Isn’t this the kind of lifestyle you would like to have?’, but are vague on the details of the scheme. I asked how it had performed as a whole, because your return is from all the properties purchased.

“Not only did the presenter not have this information on hand, she ‘guaranteed’ me that if I invested today, I would have my money back plus at least 50 percent in six months. High returns go with high risk,” Smit says.

His biggest concern is that the public is being induced to invest, deposits are being taken, and the people doing the inducing are not qualified financial advisers.

“How is the scheme adhering to the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act? There is very little transparency in it – not even a telephone number on the website. There are a lot of worrying signs,” Smit says.

Teixeira says a legitimate pooled investment would typically have the following characteristics:

* There is a documented investment mandate.

u Profits and/or losses on the investment positions made are shared in equal proportions to investors’ share of the joint account.

* The joint account is a separate legal entity that is registered with an independent financial regulator in a well-regulated jurisdiction – for example, the Financial Services Board in South Africa or the Financial Services Authority in the United Kingdom.

* You have a legal title to your share of the pooled investment in the form of a share or unit in the investors’ joint account.

* There is an independent custodian who holds a legal title to the investments made. The custodian is also subject to a financial regulator and would have indemnity insurance covering fraud and misappropriation.

* There is an administrator who manages the reporting of the investments and the profits and or losses realised on these investments. The administrator reports on the value per share or unit of ownership in the joint account.

* Contributions to the joint account are made in the currency denomination of the jurisdiction in which the joint account is registered and regulated. For instance, a South African-regulated invest-ment will be made in rands not in US dollars.

* Tax certificates are issued by the administrator to the investors, confirming all amounts that are liable for tax, be that income tax, capital gains tax or dividends tax.

* There is a clear process on how pooled investments are cashed out or sold and the proceeds paid to investors. The process would cover when investments can be liquidated and how long it would take to pay out to investors.

Teixeira concludes that, based on the presentation and material reviewed, F4P is not a regulated pooled investment scheme. “I would therefore recommend one exercise caution in parting with your capital to such a scheme. It has all the hallmarks of a multilevel marketing scheme, but with no actual proof of ownership in property.”

Personal Finance asked Shurno Naidu, who works for F4P in Durban, if the scheme is a property syndication.

“Sort of, with a referral programme,” Naidu says. But when asked about a legal title to your share in the pooled investment, she wasn’t able to answer questions and said it “isn’t fair to ask questions without listening to the webinar or presentation”.

F4P claims it has bought land in Potchefstroom. According to a F4P online presentation, it has purchased a 15 798-square-metre plot in a gated estate in Potchefstroom, “which will be subdivided into seven portions”. It claims to have paid R5.8 million for the land, which it reckons will fetch R11.5 million after subdivision.

Greg Ede, the scheme’s marketing manager, who lives in Australia, said this week that the Potchefstroom property would generate “real profits this week”.

An estate agent who is a franchisee of a blue chip realty company in Umhlanga Rocks says he joined F4P in November and has earned $2 300 in referral fees alone.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the estate agent says he “researched it thoroughly” and even met F4P’s Ede and its chief executive (of the overseas operation), Les Richardson.

When asked if he had referred the F4P scheme to any of his clients, he claimed he had not – “only friends”.

Flippant answers from Flipping4Profit

On its website, Flipping4Profit (F4P) is silent on the most pertinent questions that any reasonable investor would want answered.

And answers to questions emailed to the marketing manager suggest that the only way to withdraw your capital from the scheme is to sell to another member of the scheme.

F4P’s marketing manager, Greg Ede, who is based in Australia, says that proof of ownership of your share of the properties in the scheme is an internet-based record only – what they call your virtual back office.

Asked how members can redeem their share of the profits made from flipping properties (the process and timelines), Ede says you can draw profits made from real estate and the lifestyle programme (referral fees) through your local bank account or via a credit card. He says nothing about redeeming your capital. But he does say members cannot “liquidate” their membership; “you can on-sell it or simply unsubscribe”.

Asked what legal title members have to claim their pro-rata share of ownership of the pooled investment, Ede says, “Every member has a property pool list in their back office. This is legal proof of your ownership entitlement to profits. If you are concerned, simply take a screen shot of your funds in your wallet [referring to an online wallet] and keep this in your records.”

Asked who is the custodian of the investment account, Ede says the management team of Flipping4Profit Worldwide controls the dispersing of funds, indicating that there is no independent custodian.

He says the company has “registered” in Australia, South Africa and Nigeria and have LLCs [limited liability company] in the United States.

There are no details in the presentation by F4P of how the pool of properties and the profits made on them is shared among investors.

All of the people involved in F4P appear to be involved in another venture called My Richesse, which also appears to be a network marketing scheme.

The content on the website is almost the same as the content on F4P’s and crossrefers to F4P’s site.

Property is a ‘get-rich-slowly’ investment

It is not a feasible business model to make profits on short-term ownership of property, Ricardo Teixeira, a management consultant at Acsis and an expert in property investments, says.

“Actual time and the time value of money (impact of inflation) will erode any profits that you could realise from a short-term buy-and-sell strategy for property.”

Profiting from property is a long-term investment strategy, he says. To make a profit from a property sale, you need:

* Time to register ownership on purchase;

* Time to improve the property by making alterations or refurbishment in order to extract value from the property that was not there when you bought it;

* Time to market the property for sale and to receive an offer at the right value in order to realise a profit;

* Time for the perception of value in a particular area to change in order to see an increase in property values; and

* Time to register ownership on sale before the seller can receive payment of the purchase price.

Global company’s head office address is false

According to the Flipping4Profit (F4P) website, its head office is in Singapore and its property division is in Florida. Above the listed physical addresses in Singapore and Florida are the words “ registered businesses”.

There are no email addresses or telephone numbers on the site.

This week, Singapore-based journalist Megawati Wijaya went in search of F4P’s head office in Singapore. The address on the website is 49 Hill Street, but it apparently does not exist.

“It’s a short street with no number 49. I checked with somebody at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry at number 47, and he’s pretty sure that there is no number 49,” Wijaya says.

Personal Finance asked Shurno Naidu, who works for F4P in Durban, for the email address of the chief executive of the global operation.

“He does not want anyone to do that. He tells everyone to send queries via an eticket to support [meaning, send an email via the website],” Naidu says.

Instead, she provided an email address for Greg Ede, the scheme’s marketing manager, who is based in Queensland, Australia.

When asked if the pooled investment is registered with any financial regulator, and if so in which jurisdiction it is registered, Ede said: “We have our own accountants and lawyers. We abide by all laws within the country we are doing the deals, including taxes.”

But Ede was not forthcoming when asked for the names and contact details of the company’s accountants and attorneys in South Africa.

A recorded presentation viewed by Personal Finance claims that F4P is “now registered in South Africa to ensure we abide by the rules and regulations of the Direct Selling Association (DSA)”.

Imtiaz Ebrahim: secretariat at the DSA, says F4P is not a member of the association and has never applied for membership.

Personal Finance found what appears to be the email address for Les Richardson, the chief executive of F4P. The email address is on the website, where participants in a forum seek to interrogate F4P. Emails to the address were unanswered and so too were questions put to an attorney in Durban, whom Naidu claims is the representative for F4PSA (Pty) Ltd.

Could scheme be in regulatory limbo?

Caroline da Silva, the deputy registrar of financial advisory and intermediary services at the Financial Services Board, says that, on the face of it, Flipping4Profit “falls outside our jurisdiction, since investment in property is not a financial product and they do not present themselves as a financial services provider”.

Da Silva referred the matter to her peers at the Reserve Bank and the office of the National Consumer Commissioner (NCC). Da Silva says the NCC has the widest jurisdiction to deal with such entities.

However, Noluntu Bam, the Ombud for Financial Services Providers, says when considering if Flipping4Profit’s offer constitutes a financial product, bear in mind that arguments by promoters of property syndications that syndications are not financial products have been dismissed by her in numerous rulings. She says her office does have jurisdiction over entities that are not registered financial services providers when they are found to be rendering financial advice or services.

About three weeks ago, Personal Finance sent questions and a link to Flipping4Profit’s recorded presentation to Prudence Moilwa, the head of enforcement and investigations at the NCC, and left messages for Moilwa, but has not had a response.