“Prime targets”: How a sophisticated property scam “wiped out” all of Constance Hall’s savings.
Constance Hall, a mom blogger, lost all of her money when she fell for a clever trick. Here’s how it works.
Constance Hall, a blogger in Perth, says that a sophisticated property scam “wiped out” her savings. She says that renters are a “prime target” in a tight market.
Hall told her 1.3 million followers on Wednesday that she “felt stupid” and was “devastated” after sending money through an email link to someone she thought was a real estate agency to rent a home for her and her kids, but who turned out to be a fraudster.
It is called a “payment redirection scam” because email accounts are hacked or copied and then people are asked for money.
WA ScamNet says that the scam is especially likely to work on people who expect a message like this and are less likely to question it.
“Payment redirection happens when con artists change the bank account so that the money goes to the wrong account. This scam takes advantage of the fact that real estate deals often involve a lot of money.
‘At first I felt stupid’
Hall went on Facebook to explain her situation. She said that the bank had only been able to get back $7.57 of the thousands of dollars she had given them. She wrote, “Officially the worst school breaks ever.”
“At first, I thought I was an idiot. How could I have let that happen? But I’m a businesswoman who often sends large amounts of money overseas. I know how to spot scams and don’t pay for anything that doesn’t come from a known contact with a good email history, so no, I’m not dumb. This could have happened to anyone who was desperate to find a place to rent.”
Hall said, “It’s too much to take in,” and the letting agent told her, “There’s nothing we can do.” He told her to call her bank.
Since she had agreed to the transaction, the bank told her that it was “minimal” that she would get her money back. They told her to talk to the police, who said pretty much the same thing.
“The Commonwealth Bank fraud department got back to me today and told me that out of the thousands of dollars I transferred, they were only able to get back $7.57. “I lost everything I had saved,” she said.
“The kids are heartbroken because we had a terrible vacation because mom is broke and can’t even apply for more money.”
She made it clear that it wasn’t a “pity party.” She said, “I’m better off financially than a lot of people, and I have to remember that and be grateful.”
“But saving has never been easy for me, and I was so proud of that money and felt like I was finally doing something that showed how well I had done despite all the odds,” she said.
“To have it all taken away in an instant…felt so unfair, and it made me think about other single moms, moms who don’t have their mom to rely on, and the career that this following has given me.”
How does the trick work?
The people behind the scam hack into email accounts and get information about financial transactions between sellers or buyers and real estate or settlement agents.
“The scammers may pretend to take over the business’s email address or make a new email address that looks almost exactly like the original,” says WA ScamNet.
“Using the new email address, the scammers try to get the people involved in the transaction to send the money from the transaction to other bank accounts that they control.”
Last year, for example, scammers stole about $375,000 that was supposed to pay for a 102-year-old woman’s care costs.
The woman’s granddaughter, who had lasting power of attorney, was working with a settlement agent to get the money from the sale of her grandmother’s house to the nursing home.
Scammers read the granddaughter’s emails to the nursing home and sent a fake email pretending to be from the nursing home about a change in the bank account details for the transfer.
The granddaughter sent the settlement agent these bank account details and some instructions. When the deal was settled, $374,251 was sent to the con artists’ bank account in Sydney.
“They said they were hacked.”
Hall said she had been looking for a rental so she and her children could move out of her mother’s house, but it was hard because the rental market in Perth was so tight.
She finally found the “perfect” house online. It had a pool, a garden, and four bedrooms.
She called Leasing Elite in Nedlands, the agent, and was shown around the house. The next day, she got an email from the agent that seemed to say, “Good news! Your request has been accepted! Please pay the bond and four weeks’ rent today or first thing tomorrow, and the papers can be sent and signed.”
She said, “It was a lot of money.”
“I was getting rid of my savings and some of last week’s pay. That’s a big hit for the school holidays, but I thought about how excited the kids will be when I tell them. It will be like a holiday in itself.”
So she paid the money, “sent the remittance right away and told them as soon as possible would be great,” and told the kids, who were so excited.
“On Friday morning, Leasing Elite called me and told me that they had been hacked,” she said.
“The last two emails I got from them on the same email thread were sent by hackers, not them. They didn’t really have that bank account, and the house was never approved.”
When asked for a comment, Leasing Elite did not answer.
$23,500 lost after hack
Consumer Protection WA sent out a press release on Tuesday that seemed to be about Hall’s case, but the agency said it would not confirm any information about the victims or the agency involved.
Consumer Protection WA said that two people looking for places to rent lost a total of $23,500 after scammers broke into the email account of a real estate agency in Perth’s western suburbs.
“Consumer Protection is looking into reports that two people who wanted to rent got a fake email from the agency saying that their applications had been approved and telling them to send the bond and rent in advance payments to a bank account that the scammers controlled,” the agency said.
“In one case, an international visitor to Perth who was staying in a hotel while waiting for confirmation of the rental property made several payments to the scammer totaling $13,100. The scam email replies said that the keys to his hotel couldn’t be given to him because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the office. After the first payment, the con artist came back and asked for more rent in advance.
Consumer Protection said that in the other case, a woman who was moving from a rural area to Perth paid $10,400 to a scammer who was pretending to be the property manager.
“She had also sent identification documents and information about herself and her finances,” it said.
The watchdog said that these “alarming cases” had led Consumer Protection Commissioner Gary Newcombe to issue an urgent warning to people who want to rent.
“Con artists always take advantage of people who are weak, like people who are desperate to find a place to rent in the current market,” Mr. Newcombe said.
“Of course, the victims are devastated to find out that they don’t have the property and that the money they sent is gone. In one case, the victim has to pay for a hotel room until he can find another place to live. In the past, victims of rental scams were sometimes left without a place to live and unable to pay for another one.
Mr. Newcombe told potential renters to call the property manager to find out if their application was accepted and to double check the bank account information given for the payment.
“Sending personal and financial information as well as identification documents to scammers will also increase the risk of identity theft, so people need to be extra careful and make sure the recipient is real before sending said.
“It’s important to know that it’s against the law for a landlord or their agent to ask for more than four weeks’ rent as a bond, more than two weeks’ rent in advance, and up to $260 as a pet bond, if applicable.”