Personal Finance: Nic Cicutti 's column

The estate agency sacked the employees - but not before they had netted pounds 250,000 from a dozen scams
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The Independent Online
ESTATE AGENTS are not the most popular of creatures (along with insurance salespeople - and journalists, it should be said).

So perhaps I should say a nice word before having a go. Here it is: most of my dealings have been positive. At least my agents have not been as bad as they are typically made out to be.

There was one exception a few years ago: I was looking at a particularly cheap property. I made an offer, but the owner never got back to me. Or so the estate agent told me.

Normally I wouldn't have given it a second thought - except that the agent also told me how much he liked the flat and how tempted he was to make an offer for it.

I've never gone back to find out who bought it. But this week a call from a mate with a true story got me wondering.

The story goes like this. A punter puts his property on the market: "Ah, yes, your home will only fetch pounds 35,000 at best, sir, but I'll see what we can do." Two weeks later: "We've managed to get you a cash offer at pounds 34,000, and that's the best I think I can get you." Four weeks later the house is sold on again by the mystery buyer for pounds 56,000.

This, I'm told, is called "back-to-backing" or "turning". In this case, the agency spotted the wrongdoing and sacked the individuals concerned - though not before they pulled at least a dozen such scams to the tune of pounds 250,000 or more.

Vendors, particularly those who need a quick deal, are most vulnerable to this tactic, all the more so at present, when house prices are said to be static of falling slightly.

There are few ways to defend yourself; but here are some worth considering.

The first is at the point of choosing an agent. Get as many as possible to value the property. Find out whether an agency is a member of a recognised organisation, such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or the National Association of Estate Agents.

Ask for the name of people making offers and get your lawyer to find out whether they are real or fictitious characters.

Back-to-backing is illegal. If you believe you are a victim, complain loudly - not just to the agency but to the police. Oh, and give me a call...

Finally, fancy a chance of appearing on telly? James Ruppert, a regular writer in our motoring section, is looking for volunteers for a programme called Dealers' Choice, in which someone looking for their next used car consults a panel of experts, including James, whose job is to find the best used car for that person's budget.

The 13-week series, which starts on 9 December, is a fun rather than serious exercise, and anyone is welcome to apply, irrespective of the vehicle they are looking for: classics, bangers, sports, prestige, or whatever.

Write to Donna North at Trans World International, Axis Centre, Hogarth Business Park, Burlington Lane, London W4 2TH.

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