Tenants caught in con

A Table View family who fell victim to an online scam say seeking justice from the police only added to their ordeal.

Last month, Carlos Murwira and his sister, Josephine Chimbo, forked out almost R20 000 for a Parklands flat they found through an online letting agency, First Trust Property.

The website claimed to have a two-bedroom flat available at Park Royal on Parklands Main Road and even provided photos of the inside of an empty flat. Mr Murwira wanted to move into the one bedroom with his girlfriend, leaving the other for his sister, so he emailed Herman Billy, the contact person listed on the website.

“They asked for a few personal details like bank statements and a copy of my ID. Everything looked legitimate. I didn’t suspect a thing,” he said, adding that he had also driven by Park Royal and noticed a sign advertising a flat for rent.

On Monday May 1, Mr Murwira heard his application had been successful, and he was emailed a

one-year-lease agreement. The email said he should“get back soonest with proof of payment to secure the unit”. He did just that, paying two months’ deposit of R12 000, along with the first month’s rent of R6000 and a R280 admin fee (a total of
R18 280) by EFT on the same day. And by 4.30pm all his belongings were loaded on the back of a truck.

“I tried calling the landline number to find out when we could collect the key but there was no answer. Then I got an email saying the agent couldn’t make it for that day and that we could get the keys the next day at 12pm. I emailed back saying I had nowhere to go and that my stuff was already loaded on a truck. They responded saying I should book into a hotel and put my things in storage and they would foot the bill for everything.”

Mr Murwira said the next day there were “red flags” when he called the landline again at 8am. “A man answered and I couldn’t peg the accent but it sounded like a Congolese or a Nigerian accent. Herman Billy sounds very Afrikaans to me. The man I spoke to said the agent would only be available at noon. By 11.20am, they sent an email to change the time to 5pm.”

Mr Murwira told them he would collect the keys at their offices but was told “they only work by appointment”. He decided to ignore this and drove with his eight-month-pregnant wife to the physical address provided on the website. When he got to 57 Main Road, Muizenberg, he discovered it was a Seeff estate agency.

“I asked if there was a First Trust Property office there and they didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt weak but I had to be strong for my wife. She burst out crying.”

Acting swiftly, Mr Murwira called his sister and told her to call Standard Bank to “flag the recipient’s account”. He drove to Simon’s Town’s Standard Bank branch and was put through to the fraud department. Mr Murwira said the money hadn’t dropped into the recipient’s account yet because of the public holiday and they were able to freeze the account.

Mr Murwira spent the night on his friend’s couch and had to take his wife to her sister.

“The bank’s fraud department told me I would have to open a case with the police, get an affidavit and send them proof of payment.”

On Wednesday May 3, Mr Murwira went to the Table View police station to open a case. “While I was talking to the constable, a detective came up behind me and said it was no use opening the case because it wouldn’t stand up in court. He said it was my stupidity.”

He returned two days later and opened a case. When he hadn’t received an SMS with his case number by that evening, he returned the next day to inquire.

“They couldn’t find my docket. I spoke to the same constable I opened my case with, and she said she left the docket to be registered with the data capturer. Up until this day, no one from the station has come back to me.”

Mr Murwira drove to the Milnerton police station to open a case of fraud there.

“If they (Table View) are not willing to investigate how are they serving and protecting people? What message are they sending to criminals? You can defraud as many people as you want?”

When Tabletalk called First Trust Property, the man who answered identified himself as Herman Billy, but he hung up when we told him why we were calling. We called back a second time and again he ended the call.

Table View police station commander Colonel Dirk Vosloo said Mr Murwira’s complaint had been “noted” and “remedial steps would be instituted” if misconduct was found.

He confirmed that Milnerton was now investigating the case as the crime had been committed in that precinct.

Standard Bank spokesman Ross Linstrom said the incident had been investigated and resolved, and Mr Murwira had been notified.

“Standard Bank regards the safety and security of customers’ accounts as crucial. Banks are taking significant steps every day to combat and prevent online fraud. The biggest weapon against online fraud will always be informed and alert customers. It is key to remember that a bank will never ask for personal information over email or sms. If you are uncertain or suspicious and feel that your personal details have been compromised, rather visit a branch or contact our fraud hotline on 0800 222 050,” said Mr Linstrom.

Mr Murwira confirmed that the money had been transferred back into his account on Monday afternoon.

* Advocate Debbie Vial, the claims and applications manager at the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) says all letting agents who act for the owner or lessor must be registered with the EAAB and be in possession of a current Fidelity Fund Certificate (FFC).

“No person or entity may advertise property for sale who is not compliant unless they are advertising their own personal property. To do so is a contravention of 26 of the Estate Agents Affairs Act 112/1976 and a criminal offence in terms of s34 of the Act. In terms of s34A, such illegal agents are not entitled to charge commission or any form of remuneration,” said Ms Vial.

“All agents are required to open and keep a trust account which is registered with the EAAB and all rental, deposit and clients’ monies must be placed into such account forthwith and kept there until the agent is lawfully entitled and authorised to pay it out,” she said.

Lessees should accordingly always check for the following:

* That the advertising agent is registered with the board and in possession of a valid current FFC by going onto the EAAB website at www.eaab.org.za and entering the agent’s details.

* Alternatively, ask the agent for a copy of their current FFC or his FFC number, which will always begin with the four numbers of the current year. You can validate the FFC number online. The EAAB call centre can also verify FFC numbers on 087 285 3222.

* Obtain a physical address for the agent and verify its existence.

* Obtain the physical address of the premises for lease and verify its existence, where possible.

* Ensure that the account name and number given by the agent for payment of deposits etc corresponds with the name of the firm or agent advertising the property, and confirm with the agent, and, where possible, with the relevant bank, that the account number does relate to a trust account.

* A new system called Privyseal is being implemented which allows clients to click on the Privyseal emblem in an agent’s email address and this will take you to EAAB information confirming the agent’s registration and compliance.

Most reputable agents have this logo embedded in their email address to facilitate quick and easy verification, or are in the process of obtaining it. Look for the Privyseal emblem in the agent’s correspondence and query it with the agent if necessary.