Limited recourse if you’ve been duped by scammers
You saw an advertisement or attended a talk, you thought you have verified the documents, you paid good money and now your calls and emails are going unanswered. What can you do to get your money back?
The unfortunate thing is – very little.
Few scammers stick around once they have been paid and even fewer have money that could be reclaimed by the authorities. Most money would either be spent on gambling, school fees, medical and personal expenses. So, read the rest of the article carefully and perform all due diligence before you sign any checks, transfer any money or in the worst case of all – hand over cash.
As this article focuses on the swindlers you may meet when dealing in real estate (be it buying, selling or renting a place), do take note of the local authorities listed as well as the regulatory guidelines that are already in place. If you believe that your agent has behaved inappropriately (such as pressuring you to hand over transaction monies – including option fee, downpayment, stamp duties, deposits and or sales proceeds), do alert the authorities as quickly as you can – someone less savvy than you may have already suffered from his tactics!
But before you even hand money over, here are some things you can do to note if the person you are dealing with is… Bona Fide or Mala Fide…
Sign 1 — “He drove a BMW, gave me his namecard and told me … lies.”
Most scammers look genuine but the operative word is “look” and a quick check would reveal otherwise. In Singapore, the Council of Estate Agencies has a Public Register that shows you if the salesperson or if his/her agency is registered, simply by typing in their mobile number or registration number. Every single salesperson in Singapore is registered under the license of an Estate Agent. Estate salespersons are also supposed to be wearing their estate agent card when they are conducting work related to their real estate work (for e.g. when meeting their clients for viewing). These estate agent cards must have a picture of the salesperson as well as their registration number and the license number of the agency they represent.
If the salesperson is registered and his/her profile shows up in the Public Register, you will be able to see their registration period as well as any awards, disciplinary actions or remarks given. If the salesperson is not registered, this person is not only unqualified, he/she is certainly out to scam you as real estate salespersons are not paid in cash for the work they do – they have to collect their commission through the licensed estate agency that they are registered under. This is usually paid via check to the estate agency no matter how small an organization they are (i.e., one person show).
Most victims of scams also claim that they put in great amounts of money into their swindlers’ schemes because the swindlers look well-off (drive a nice car, have parties at their landed homes, have pictures with well-known politicians and spoke so convincingly about the viability of their investments). Sometimes, they feel such rapport with these cheats that they never thought to do their due diligence.
Go against your lazy nature of trusting the visual cues that these swindlers have set out for you. Instead, do the boring and tedious work of reading transaction records and always double check the “facts” that they lay out in their presentations. Government statistics may be manipulated in presentations but if you have access to the Internet, you can check these statistics before you dump money into an investment scheme.
Meanwhile, here’s a real life example of how a cheat managed to fool a law firm secretary into verifying that a sale of a bungalow was legitimate even though the bona fide owner had not given such instructions…
Sign 2 — He said, “Pay me in cash now or this fantastic deal is gone…”
As long as you hear this – run! Scammers prefer to give as little reaction time to their victims as possible. This is because due diligence takes time. The deal would seem really sweet – it may not be the cheapest but it would still be unbelievably good value. You wonder why and they would give some fantastic stories that make you somehow believe you just happen to be there at the right time. You of all people – so you should simply pay up and it’s yours.
Scammers understand your weaknesses and they manipulate your emotions like putty in their hands. Love scams are grown over time because love needs time to flourish (and requests for small amounts of cash are less visible to concerned friends and family). Rental scams on the other hand rely on victims not being able to do their due diligence because of the urgency of the deal. Scammers may show you the other “check” that they have already collected – you have no way of verifying the truth (but think about how easy it is for a swindler to forge signatures and create imaginary demand) – but never hand in cash check or write down check for names of persons you have not had the time to find through official records. Your agent or yourself, should be able to find the name of the owner of the home you are buying or renting from via Singapore Land Authority’s Integrated Land Information Service (INLIS) and via Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) e-Valuation (reveals the person who is paying the property tax).
Always write down only the name that shows up in the official records – cross the check and note the check number in case you have to cancel it before it goes through. Banks in Singapore take a day to clear and if you pass the check after 4 pm, you are usually able to cancel it if something makes you rethink the offer during the night.
Meanwhile, here’s a real life example of how a cheat (and a bona fide agent) managed to get away with a total sum of $91,474 from a total of 27 cheating cases. Noticed how he got cash for advance rental payment, deposits and commission. Remember, that salespersons are not allowed to handle transactions monies and never hand over cash for these purposes. (In a property lease transaction, transaction monies include rental deposits, monthly rentals and stamp duties. In a property sale and purchase transaction, transaction monies include option fee, downpayment, stamp duties, deposits and sales proceeds. Valuation fees and commissions are not transaction monies.)
Sign 3 — “Don’t worry – I will do everything for you…” or “This is a secret deal I got for you, ok?”
Do not worry. Instead, do educate yourself about the process and your obligations. For e.g. are you aware of the amount of stamp duty you have to pay? Where can you find the stamp duty calculator? What form of payment is acceptable for stamp duty and is it advisable for the agent to do it for you? When you receive the stamp duty certificate, how do you verify if it is a bona fide one?
Scammers hate questions. They prefer to tell you what to do (for e.g. “this is fine print you can read at leisure – just sign here and we will give you a copy later”) and they prefer if you say yes and they would “do everything for you” because they would like you to “rest your pretty head”. Ask yourself, is there a conflict of interest for someone who is in the position of recommending you financing when his commission rests on how much you are willing to spend on the transaction? Would it not be your responsibility to check if you have other financing options? Is your agent your financial consultant or legal advisor? If not, why are you relying on his opinions for these matters? Under the Code of Ethics and Professional Client Care, housing agents are to recommend their clients’ professional advice where appropriate.
It is your right to seek a second or third opinion – especially a lawyer’s opinion if you feel that the draft of the agreement sounds skewed towards one party. It is your right to delay signing anything you are not comfortable with. It is your right to challenge your agent’s point of view and go against his/ her advice if you do not feel comfortable. Also, be very clear about the instructions that you give your agent – always have these matters in writing – and if you know you are in a vulnerable situation (maybe because you are unfamiliar with these matters) ask if someone else can be copied in your communication (for e.g. a family member) and ask that this person is also included in all correspondences, so that you have a witness to what was told and what was said and the time it took for responses.
Scammers do not like second or third opinions. The worst ones prey on the most vulnerable – and then twist words around like this housing agent who not only took cheques from a half blind elderly gentleman on a wheelchair but insisted that they were gifts when questioned. Imagine if the bank officers did not alert the police in this instance!
So, always insist on documentary proof (lawyers can also help explain the encumbrances on a title – these small claims do not stop the sale and purchase but they can bring down the actual value of your purchase, so ask if you are not sure what has been registered) and always do the necessary due diligence. If the person’s interest in you waned because you insist on doing your own homework on the investment before you join the bandwagon, be very sure this person does not have your best interests in mind. If the person insists on creating secret deals (for whatever reasons he can conjure) that is only “advantageous” to you, resist the greed. Scammers like secrecy – because only in secret, could they steal from you.
Contact the police if you suspect you have encountered a scammer
Lastly, contact the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore Police Force if you have reasons to suspect the company or person of wrongdoing (for property investment companies). The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) also have regulatory and enforcement action against those who claim to offer financial services – so if you have vulnerable folks at home – just make sure that your number is registered under the Do-Not-Call Registry. In the event that you still receive an unsolicited sales call, you can report the matter to Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) and MAS.
Do refer to MoneySense (an initiative by MAS for Financial Education) – Consumer Alerts! For more information on other unregulated entities and schemes.
Would you like to consult a lawyer if you’ve been taken by a scammer?
If you believe you have given money to a scammer and would like to know your options and get answers to your questions, you can speak with an experienced lawyer for a transparent, flat fee of S$49 with a Quick Consult HERE.