Data farming through fake property ads unrestrained

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The Malaysian government and consumer organisations have been actively providing awareness programmes to the general public.

The Malaysian government and consumer organisations have been actively providing awareness programmes to the general public.

The pain is real. Navigating through property websites just to find a legit property listing nowadays is frustrating to no end. Listings and ads of homes with unbeatable prices and airbrushed photos take up the first and second pages, pushing back real listings and forcing customers to give up to retain their dwindling sanity.

With all the artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, image recognition and fraud detection softwares available to employ, why does this pesky occurrence still prevail?

Scammers and data farmers today don’t even have to lift a finger since today’s technology can simply automate the process of creating and posting fake ads. In an article titled AI Impersonation in Real Estate Transactions, author Paul Hunter warned of the latest threat of AI misusage. The Houston-based real estate professional has witnessed the changing dynamic first-hand and brings with him two decades of experience into his writings.

“One of the most insidious uses of AI in the real estate industry is the creation of fake property listings. With the help of AI-generated content, scammers can craft convincing property descriptions, generate realistic images of non-existent properties and even fabricate virtual tours to deceive prospective buyers. These fake listings can appear on legitimate platforms, making them challenging to identify,” wrote Hunter.

Knowing that there is a huge demand for property in Malaysia, the potential of scammers and data farmers populating and germinating such activities in the Malaysian market is high. With Malaysia being a popular destination for unsuspecting locals and foreigners looking to purchase a property, this turns into an opportunity for them to create fake ads and trick victims into providing their contact information, be it for marketing purposes or other illegitimate transactions.

This stems from the issue of weak regulations on property websites. There is no central authority that manages all the websites but there are a number of organisations working to combat this frustrating issue. The governmental agency Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Malaysian Anti-Scam Association (MASA) and Property Services Malaysia (PSM) all play major roles in handling the issue.

MASA provides information services and advice to consumers about scams while working with law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute scammers. PSM is a trade association that represents the property industry in Malaysia. They have a code of conduct for property agents, which includes provisions on preventing fake ads and scam listings. However, it is simply too easy to recreate another listing under another alias, so the problem still requires further thought.

Where is the transparency?

Despite many Malaysian property sites actively taking down fake listings, there is the root issue of how these listings got the green light in the first place. Was there no thorough screening process? Browsing and eventually purchasing a property is a huge deal, so wouldn’t these websites want a safe, secure and seamless experience for every single one of their users?

Could there be financial incentives involved that are kept under the wraps? Could it be that fraudulent unregistered agents are promising fat commissions to these sites if they can generate leads for them? That such offers are too tempting? Of course, the biggest possibility is that there are simply too many fake listings that multiply like weeds even after pulling down a few. Hopefully, the technology available in Malaysia will continue to evolve and prevent such listings from even occurring in the first place.

There’s no way to stop it…for now

For particularly well-designed listings, it may prove difficult for buyers who are unaware and thus unable to correctly distinguish. The lack of awareness is a concerning issue that requires intervention through public education. The Malaysian government and consumer organisations have been actively providing awareness programmes to the general public, such as the National Anti-Scam Campaign launched earlier in February this year.

New governmental regulations should be introduced requiring the listers to disclose specific information about their posts, such as their personal particulars, property address and exact asking price. As an added precaution, there should also be a requirement for property websites to verify the identity of the posters before proceeding with the uploads.

On their end, property websites could also adhere to proper codes of conduct for the information they disclose and be transparent regarding how they deal with fake listings and data farming. Verification should always be done to ensure solely accurate and clear information is uploaded, whether it be via technology or manually performed. In this case, machine learning algorithms are suitable for analysing listings to identify patterns indicative of fraud.

We live in a technologically-advanced world, so doing research before clicking any links should be second nature by now. Googling property addresses and phone numbers is all too easy now, so being wary of listings that are too perfect is a good skill to sharpen. Tackling this issue is a two-way road that if done correctly, will help improve transparency on Malaysian property websites and prevent scammers from filling their pockets with cash and data.

This article was first published on StarBiz7.

 


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