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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

House hunters are being targeted by bogus property listings scams 

Fake adverts on property sites urge people to buy "non-existent" real estate

The Ministry of Interior has issued a warning about property scams on social media. Sarah Dea / The National
The Ministry of Interior has issued a warning about property scams on social media. Sarah Dea / The National

House hunters in the UAE are being targeted with fake adverts designed to lure buyers into purchasing non-existent property.

The Ministry of Interior has issued a warning about the scams, which promote homes both across the country and overseas using bogus listings on property sites and on social media.

"The public should [be careful of] scammers who use bogus real estate listings inside and outside the country with the assistance of technology and social media platforms to dupe their victims into buying non-existent property," said Brig Gen Dr Salah Obeid Al Ghoul, director-general of the Ministry of Interior's Community Protection and Crime Prevention department.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is working to stop the scams, which exist in many countries, said Saif bin Gholeita, executive director of the Technology Development Department at the TRA.

Experts have said there is a “huge problem” across the wider UAE property market with fake listings and pictures on property portals.

Imran Ellam, senior residential consultant at BespokeAD, said he only uses pictures of the particular apartment or apartment type for his listings. But the issue of incorrect pictures and fake listings is widespread, he said.

“A client sent me photos saying ‘buy this immediately,’” said Mr Ellam. “He thought they were photos of a one-bedroom apartment. But it was actually a three bed terrace with a golf course view, and they were advertising it as a one bed.

That happens for several reasons, he said. Part of it is laziness on behalf of the agent – they do not have photos of the property to hand, so they use pictures of another one in the same development, regardless of the size.

And some property portals also require 10 photos in order to be placed at the top of the page, he added. Then there are still other agents who do it to entice home hunters, say experts.

“Lots of real estate agents use a really interesting tactic where they list something that doesn’t exist and then try and find it afterwards,” said Ben Crompton, managing partner of Crompton and Partners in Abu Dhabi.

“So they advertise a unit that they think should exist. And then they call the call centres who phone the owners to try and find the unit.”

That typically happens because the agents are from a small or new company, and they do not have any units to rent. In addition, another major factor in the market is the fact that any agent can market any property that appears on the listings of property management companies.

“I have 3,000 units I could potentially lease but I don’t have exclusivity on. So I don’t know if they are gone or not unless the landlord tells me,” added Mr Crompton.

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Lukman Hajje, chief commerical officer for Propertyfinder Group, said misleading property adverts on portals are widespread, including on his own site.

“The only way to 100 per cent eliminate the practice is to go and photograph the properties yourself or inspect every listing across 100,000 listings, which as you can appreciate is not very practical,” he said.

However, the property portal has launched a number of initiatives in recent years to combat the problem. They include establishing an online quality control team in 2013 to investigate all complaints, which can be made via the listings with the “report this property” button.

“If the complaint turns out to be valid, the offending broker loses ranking points. Essentially if you have a lot of penalties, the difference could be between you being on page one and on page 50,” he said.

The following year, the property portal also launched verified listings on the back of complaints about misleading adverts. This ensures that properties marketed by agents who can prove they have the authority to do so by providing documentation, such as a copy of the owner’s passport, receive a higher ranking.

“If you go to our website you will find that the first few pages will all be verified listings,” said Mr Mr Hajje.

Craig Plumb, head of research at JLL Mena, said it is up to the potential purchaser, or tenant, to do their own due diligence and independently check any claims made about the property by the agent. Other experts agreed that being careful about the agent you select is a good start.

“Get a recommendation for a broker – someone a friend has used, maybe, and use that broker, as opposed to responding to adverts,” said Mr Crompton.

“Because most of the time the adverts aren’t correct. And you end up going with a broker who is deliberately posting false information. It’s not a great start for the broker-client relationship.”

It is not the first time house hunters in the UAE have been targeted – in 2014 The National reported that hundreds of people lost tens of millions of dirhams to bogus property agents in Abu Dhabi.

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