Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

If you're dealing with an estate agent — or someone who is passing themselves off as one — there's now an easy way to check their credentials.

Look no further than their e-mail signature: if it doesn't bear a PrivySeal, the agent is either not registered with the Estate Agency Affairs Board or has failed to register for their PrivySeal, the use of which is now mandatory.

A PrivySeal is a digital seal that authenticates registered estate agents in real time. In other words, a PrivySeal will display only if the estate agent is registered with the EAAB and has been issued with a valid fidelity fund certificate.

"As opposed to a static image embedded in an e-mail or on a website, the PrivySeal is dynamic and displays today's date and time," explained Stephen Logan, the CEO of PrivySeal. When the user clicks on the seal, a hyperlinked verification certificate opens on the PrivySeal site, which in turn checks against the EAAB's database every five minutes.

Risk of loss is high

"Most people using an estate agent to buy, sell or rent property don't know why it's important for the agent to be suitably qualified and registered," said Margie Campbell, the EAAB communications manager. Whether you're buying or renting property, your deposit was usually a sizable sum of money and the risk of losing it was high if you did not work with a professional agent, she said.

To retain their registration status with the EAAB, estate agents must meet minimum professional standards, comply with a code of conduct and participate in continuing professional development programmes.

The EAAB has the power to discipline, fine and deregister estate agents guilty of misconduct.

"It is an unfortunate fact that unregistered and/or noncompliant operators within the sector pose a severe risk to both registered professionals and the wider public," said a media release issued by the EAAB.

"Such persons generally have only a limited knowledge of property law and procedure, do not open or maintain requisite trust accounts, are not audited, and do not comply with mandatory educational requirements," it said.

By partnering with PrivySeal, the EAAB hopes to assist members of the public to distinguish between registered estate agents and illegal operators and encourage consumers to deal only with registered and professional estate agents.

They had been scammed

Stephen Logan, an attorney specialising in consumer law, was inspired to develop the product after his professional identity was stolen in 2005.

"I started getting phone calls from consumers abroad, saying they had been dealing [via e-mail] with a barrister Logan and had deposited funds in my trust account, but were getting no service.

"When I realised they had been scammed, I reported it to the Attorneys Fidelity Fund, the South African police and Interpol, but there was no recourse for these consumers. It irked me that I couldn't do anything, and had it happened in South Africa, my name would have been sullied."

He said the digital seal could be used to authenticate professionals in any sector, and that PrivySeal professional accreditation was being considered by the Financial Services Board to authenticate financial services providers and advisers.

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