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Property Scams cause untold financial distress and economic turmoil. The memories of the experience don’t leave quickly and can haunt their victims. I’ve been down that road, I know. In 2016, one such scam which purportedly gave investors the fast-track to homeownership decimated hundreds of millions in investors savings and credit. With no discernible repertoire of property developments, one would imagine that the scam would have been unearthed quickly, or that victims would have shied away. Yet, despite the alarm bells sounded against this property scam, would-be investors still piled in on an unprecedented scale. This fraud wasn’t just an indictment on the state of investor awareness and culture in this market, but also on market regulation, consumer protection mechanisms and investor education.

If we could remove the property scam artists out of the equation for just a second, just what renders seemingly rational individuals to become predisposed to the wiles of scammers? Is it a strong desire to achieve their goals? Is it their naivety or perhaps a misguided belief in overnight wealth and success? Is it their readiness to believe in get-rich-quick schemes or their failure to understand how things actually work? Who wouldn’t embrace the possibility of financial freedom if presented with an opportunity to get rich overnight, however incredulous? What if that opportunity required negligible effort, who wouldn’t that appeal to? Faced with the prospects offered by the property scam artist, do victims know what questions they should ask?

What Do Property Scams Look Like?

Property scams, like ghosts, assume whatever form imaginable by those who conjure them. If only scammers warned their pawns ahead of time, right? Whatever form they assume, they all tend to have a common feature – there is usually something unbelievable or untenable about them, a red flag or a series of red flags. Of course, the very reason victims get sucked into scammers’ orbit is that those qualities are quite magical, even hypnotic. These red flags, or bait, are what the scammer uses to lure victims. Like green snakes in the grass, they are particularly insidious because they are hidden in plain sight and unless one knows what to look for, they’re not likely to be attentive enough to see them.

Even more daunting is that as they run their course, property scams often morph and mutate, becoming increasingly complex and agile in their nature so that by the time the trap is sprung, the scammer has had sufficient time to conceal their intent, erase their footprint and potentially vanish into thin air – all while their unsuspecting victims still believe that all is well.

Unpacking Property Scams & The Red Flags Around Them

It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled

Most scams go unreported because their victims invariably get embarrassed and don’t want to be shamed in public. Scams that attract the media spotlight usually only do so because of the creativity, flair and scale on which they are committed. Scams ordinarily present as legitimate market offers eventually mutating to fit in with their perpetrators’ goals so there is little in the way of preemptive measures to avoid them because they are invariably unearthed post-mortem. Scammers don’t operate with any deference to market regulation so it also unlikely that market protections would serve any purpose to preempt their perpetration.

Where Shall Help Come From?

So, if scammers are able to conceal their intent, and market protection mechanisms only kick in retroactively, is there a silver bullet or magic potion to inoculate would-be victims from the wiles of scammers who would happily steal their future in the property market? Sadly, there is neither one nor the other. However, you can get ahead of scammers by understanding how to identify the red flags around scams, the elements of your nature that they tend to exploit, and what those who conjure them into existence engineer into their traps.

Property Scams: The Scammers Guide

Have you ever observed a moth around a lit candle? If you have, you will understand, at least theoretically, how scams are built and pulled off. The candle emits a glow which offers warmth to the moth so that even the poor creature’s instincts are numbed to the allure of an open flame. In a near-cataleptic state, the moth begins to dance around the flame, repeatedly having his wings singed to the point where he loses the ability to fly. There is a lesson from the moth that needs to be learned. Bright, shiny things can bring death! Look away from the light! One would imagine that having been burnt once, or twice even, the darn thing would just flee the scene. But no. He keeps going in.

Hope Springs Eternal!

Hypnosis trumps instinct! Scammers know this. So they will build a mesmerizingly bright light into their “death traps” – it warms your spirit (gives you hope or fuels your greed?) and hypnotizes you. Just like the moth, you cannot flee; you surrender yourself to be courted.  

To different people the allure is different but it is invariably manifested in more money or prestige or by some other thing desired by the scammer’s victims – something for which you will give up all. Forget love, or sex, or drugs, this thing is much more potent! Once a scammer discovers that thing, he just needs to lie in wait.

Where Are Your Wits?

Of course, for you to realize that the game is afoot, you must keep your wits (instinct) about you. The moth loses his wings because the warmth from the candle renders him comatose, just as the investor loses his ability to analyze risk or make rational decisions immediately greed wins him over.

  1. Be Skeptical. You won’t see the red flags if you’re not looking for them.
  2. Market Savvy: You wouldn’t know what is unbelievable or unreasonable if you don’t know what is believable or reasonable. If something about what is being sold to you sounds unbelievable/ too-good-to-be-true (that light that’s about to clip your wings dear moth), test it, understand how it works, research, get professional help…do all you can to get to the truth before you jump in headlong and straight into the concrete.
  3. Do the math. Does it add up?
  4. Are you under pressure to sign up? You may want to step back and have another look.

In any market, investment opportunities that turn exceptional returns are classified “high-risk, high-return” ventures. The prospect of investing in such an opportunity should be met with a clear effort at analyzing and understanding risk, developing mitigation strategies and exit plans.

Property Scams: The Red Flags

Scammers will always incentivize their prospects with a variety of “good things”. Enticements may be couched in something that is seemingly free, or as a shortcut to achieving something desired –a panacea for all your troubles and ills. So what are the red flags?

#1. Shortcuts To Get You There Faster

You will be remiss to believe that investment processes can be circumvented. Perhaps there may be some more efficient ways to achieve tasks or goals but the process must be followed. Scammers use the promise of getting you there faster to lure you in. Who doesn’t want to get anywhere faster? Even better, who doesn’t want to get there faster than everyone else?

#2. So Easy To Do

Faced with a daunting task, we are inherently wired to take the lazy route and so the easiest way to get anyone to sign up for anything is to sell it as easy-to-do, easy-to-sign-up, no-work-required-on-your-part. Scammers know that we all want to get away with something for nothing if we can and they will use this against you!

#3. Secrets of the Rich & Famous

Ever seen the videos that offer to whisper the secrets of the rich and famous directly into your ear? The easiest way for a scammer to sear themselves into your heart and mind is to offer something highly desired but seemingly elusive. Most people won’t see through the promise except their belief in it.

#4. Get a Free Ride Here

If someone promised you a product that would deliver your dream of home ownership at zero-interest finance cost, in market conditions of a growing housing deficit and where the traditional lenders financing the same product at 15% were servicing fewer than 25000 customers, would you buy the product? There’s clearly an appeal (as pleasant perhaps as the warmth of an open flame to the moth) but does the product come across as tenable or even believable? This scam was pulled off successfully in our market fewer than two years ago. Even though there was no frame of reference to evaluate the opportunity, many of the victims were more willing to believe in the opportunity rather than in the incredulity of it.

#5. High-Pressure Sales Tactics

After a free lunch, you are more amenable to hear what your benefactor has to say. A quick, flashy presentation and thereafter all the stops are pulled out to get you to sign-up. Amazing offers (just for today). You will be cajoled, courted, prodded and every imaginable trick used to get you to sign on the dotted line. Representatives will be sent to smooth things over with you. Need a payment plan, there is one! The reason the property scam artists don’t want you mulling too long over the snake-oil they are peddling is that they know the voice of reason may prevail when you’re left to your thoughts.

#6. It’s All In-House

One clear sign that you’re about to swim down the river without a life-jacket is the promise that everything you need is under one roof. The allure is obviously the convenience that seems to come with the product you’re buying. For property scams, this may take the form of the scammer having in-house professionals rolled into the framework of the scam to include say property developers, legal and even financial experts. Because of the interests of the scammer and those of their pawns are at conflict, these experts are just a ruse. There is an unholy alliance here, one which will only rear its ugly head when the truth begins to out.

#7. We Do It, Even When We Don’t Do It

You need to ascertain the true nature of the business of anyone selling you a product in the property market. What would qualify a property seller, for instance, to guarantee you a return on an agribusiness venture? If you paused to think about it, none at all! You may realize that the property seller who includes greenhouses and the prospect of a return on the associated agri-business venture connected to the offer for land he is selling you, has just crafted an ingenious gimmick to move the property he is selling and has already priced the cost of the greenhouses into the cost of his product. This scam is still practiced in our market even today. But don’t take my word for it. Look for those who bought into these schemes and let them tell you their experiences.

#8. The Hysteria of the Masses:

Once a critical mass of people believes a scammer’s lie, it starts to breed as if by binary fission, like a single-celled creature infecting the market with its insidiousness. Think about this: If five people within your circle start to talk about five people within their respective circles doing something “life-changing” that’s trendy or new and has been presented as an amazing opportunity, aren’t you going to sit up and listen? The very human fear of missing out spurs interest so that soon enough, you’ll be the sixth person speaking to six other people who will do the same thing and before long the body of victims starts to pile on organically. The lie takes on a life of its own becoming an uncontrollable beast and sucking in more and more victims until the moment of truth arrives!

Property Scams: The Scammers Toolkit

#1. What Scammers Look Like

Property scam artists possess many intuitive qualities that situate them perfectly to exploit human capacity for greed. They are excellent at rapport-building and can make even strangers feel familiar and accepted. They are consummate actors, masters of detail, attentive listeners and often the most meticulous, well-researched individuals in the room. They endear themselves through an unrivaled understanding of the dreams and aspirations of their pawns, by displaying intense sensitivity and camaraderie. They can think on their feet, refining their plans on a whim all while building an aura of superiority and authority to consolidate the trust placed in them. They are well articulated, and both highly persuasive and deceptive in equal measure and apply any means necessary to propel their agenda.

Unpacking Property Scams & The Red Flags Around Them

# 2. Weaponizing Trust, Desperation, Greed and Ignorance

Property scam artists have the ability to weaponize human nature in furtherance of their goals. The right combination of trust, desperation, greed, ignorance and the fear of missing out is their hunting grounds because when we want to believe something to be true, we become susceptible to the suggestion that it can be. The desire to keep up with or outpace others in the race of life compounds the fear of missing out. The key to this recipe, however, is human capacity for greed!

#3. All Human Beings Are Good and Kind

We want to believe in the goodness and kindness of others because we may see ourselves that way and because doing good feels good. We falsely believe we can somehow spot malevolence and connivance in others.  These pseudo-beliefs build the scene for scammers to build our confidence. These beliefs are so strong that even presented with evidence or facts to the contrary, most victims’ default position will usually be that all is well.  We refuse to see what we don’t want to see, especially when it doesn’t fit well with the picture we’ve constructed in our minds. The rational thing we would ordinarily do before committing resources to investments is to objectively evaluate them and any alternative options. Blind trust and/or ignorance, greed and our desperation to believe in outrageous possibilities that a scammer may be peddling, even when questionable, often outstrip rational behaviour or response. So we abandon all investigation or the critical analysis that would help us see through the scammer’s deceit.

#4. Everyone is Fair Game

A scammer, well-versed in their “craft” understands that victims are easily found among individuals who have recently undergone some sort of profound change or experience. People who are vulnerable to scams are not necessarily desperate or ignorant (usually just greedy or well-meaning). Profound change can create instability whether positive or negative.  Hypothetically, an individual who just won millions in a lottery is just as susceptible (if not more) to being scammed as an individual who just lost his job. Both events, one seemingly positive and the other negative, create susceptibility that can be exploited.

Conclusion

Identifying scams isn’t a clear-cut task. But with a clearer idea of how they are presented, how property scam artists work, and importantly, the elements of human nature that make victims most susceptible to getting conned, you have the tools to avoid them. The heart may want what it wants and perhaps that’s why we have heads. Now you know. Don’t let them steal your dreams.

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