Beware of real estate's worst nightmare.

By Neil Jenman


Imagine this - You go on holidays and when you return, someone else is living in your home. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" you ask. "I am the new owner. Who are you?" comes the reply. Welcome to real estate's worst nightmare where someone has stolen your home and there's not much you can do about it.

This is not a joke, it's a serious warning about what can happen to almost any property owner in Australia, especially if their properties are unattended. For several years, a few people in property circles have been aware of a large loophole in Australia's property laws. It's a loophole that allows thieves to steal almost any property in any area at any time - and do it easily and quickly with a slim chance of being caught.

It is irresponsible to explain how to commit a crime, which is why this story has never been told. So why tell it now? A few weeks ago I was giving a lecture on business ethics. The subject of revealing or concealing information was being discussed.

As an example I explained how easy it would be to steal real estate but that such information should not be made public because, to the best of my knowledge, it had never happened and, to release it could give thieves ideas. Several agents said, "It's already happened." An agent in Balmain said someone impersonated absent owners and sold their home. An agent in Victoria told an almost identical story. Both stories checked out as true. Reading through one police statement was frightening. So, while it may be irresponsible to reveal how to commit a crime, it is also irresponsible not to bring a glaring legal loophole to the public's attention so that laws can be changed.

Now, while I am not going to reveal the few simple steps to stealing a home, it's not hard to figure out. It all comes back to one word -identification. Astonishingly, to sell a property in Australia, you don't need identification. Every day hundreds of agents visit homes and meet people who claim to be the owners. Have you ever heard of an agent asking a property owner for identification? I haven't. Here's a test. Go into any pawn shop and try and sell any item. The first thing you'll be asked to show is identification. Now, apply that same test to real estate.

Imagine you own a vacant property (or, heaven forbid, a vacant block of land). Imagine someone knows your name and knows that you are the owner of that property. Imagine they call an agent and say they are you and they want to sell. The agent will ask them to sign some papers. No identification required. Once a buyer is found, the people who are pretending to be you will contact a lawyer and use your name. No identification required. Yes, at this point there is a small hurdle - which is easy for a thief of moderate intelligence to overcome - and then, quite easily and quite quickly, the property will be sold to the buyer (who becomes the legal owner) and the money will be paid to the person pretending to be you. No identification required. So, how do you prevent this happening to you? It's not easy. If a thief is determined to steal your home, I wouldn't like to be you. The best advice, at the moment, is to be vigilant, to keep an eye on your property.

Here's how one owner found out that his investment property was being stolen - his daughter drove past and saw a sold sign. "Hey Dad, why didn't you tell us you sold the house?" Dad knew nothing about it. Fortunately, he stopped the sale. If you are well known it's harder for your home to be stolen . For example, it would be hard for someone to sell Aussie John's massive waterfront home on Sydney Harbour because the agents know the home and they know John. But what about the house next door? What about your house? It should be mandatory for people who sell homes to prove they are the rightful owners. Just like in pawn shops.