How I narrowly avoided being conned

| Mandy de Waal
Photo by Rusty Clark. (CC BY 2.5)

As an investigative journalist I’ve come face-to-face with grifters. I’ve interviewed fraudsters and studied sociopathy extensively. I’m fascinated by psychopaths and the peculiarities of the brain that make them different to the rest of us. Trying to understand the mental workings of good and evil is a hobby of mine.

This story is about how, given my profession and particular interests, I should have known better. It is about how I was lured into a scam artist’s play, and got very close to giving that conman my hard-earned cash.

For the past few years I’ve been living in a fairly low rent cottage set in an idyllic garden in Irene, Centurion. I was what some people call ‘lucky’. I was in the right place at the right time, and found the perfect spot to live at a very affordable price.

Three years down the line I was given notice. My Shangri-La was sold, and I was given three months to find a new place to live. I’ve been scouring through the online property and free classified sites in the hope of finding affordability again, in a suburb where houses normally sell for a couple of million or more, and where rentals are high.

Imagine my delight when I chanced across an advert for house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms at a rental of only R10,000. Now I’m a journalist, so that’s a little out of my price range. With water and lights, we’re probably looking at double what I’m paying now. But the place was a dream and in the suburb I wanted to live in.

Built in a U-shape around a large courtyard, it was massive and roomy with an expansive kitchen (with a gas stove) as well as a walk in shower, beautiful fittings, and a shady farm-like stoep in the suburbs. This is the kind of elite luxury you’d never be able to afford on a journalist’s salary.

The house was advertised at less than half the going rate in Irene, Centurion. Surely good fortune was smiling on me again? I’d make a plan, I told myself, about the excess. If the house could be mine, I’d get a lodger or eat out less, or work more. I was already moving (in my head) before I fired off an online query through the free classifieds service where the ad was placed.

It was late at night, but I got a response immediately. “Please call me,” the email from Johan de Bruin read in response to my query. I waited until the next morning and dialled the mobile number he gave me.

“I love the place you’ve advertised for R10,000 a month in Irene. Is it still available?” I asked. “Yes it is,” answered de Bruin on the phone, but I’ve had thousands of calls,” he responded. “I’m off to a meeting. Any chance I could see the house this afternoon?” I asked.

“I’ll be there from 2pm,” he responded. “But I’ve had so many responses… hundreds… thousands. It’s crazy. The house might well be gone by then.” The phone kept on cutting out during our conversation, and I had to phone back a few times, so we didn’t have a definite time to meet for the viewing.

When the afternoon arrived I hotfooted it towards the house that de Bruin had given me the address for, and I called to make sure he’d be there. “Hey… good to hear from you. I’m not there at the moment, but I’ve already had an offer from a guy in Bloemfontein. He said he knows the area, loves the look of the house and I’m just waiting for him to pay in the R5,000 deposit. If he does the house is his. Why don’t you call me in about an hour’s time and see whether that payment was made. If not we can talk,” de Bruin told me via his mobile phone.

I waited a couple of hours and phoned back. “Is the house still available?” I asked. “Look I haven’t received the deposit from the Bloemfontein guy so I’ve decided to give the house to the first person that makes the deposit to me. I reckon that’s the fairest way of doing this. I’ve just had so much interest in this house,” he said.

“My boyfriend and I would be excellent tenants,” I said. I tried to sell myself and motivate why the house should be mine. “We’re financially stable and have excellent references.” The deep, Afrikaans accent responded, “That’s great. I’ve got 22 houses and appreciate having good tenants. But the house will go to the person who puts down a deposit first.”

I tell de Bruin that I don’t have R5,000 on me, but that I could loan the cash and meet him at the house. That way I could hand him the deposit and see the house at the same time. “I can’t make it there now. Why don’t you deposit the money into my account, and I will meet you there first thing in the morning with a rental agreement and receipt?” he says.

Next thing we’re talking bank accounts. He’s at Rand Merchant Bank. I’m at Standard Bank, so the transfer would take a few days. “You can do a cash transfer at the local Spar. That’s immediate,” he says.

“Um. Gosh. I don’t want to sound rude, but how do I know it is secure? How do I know I’ll see you tomorrow?” I ask. At this stage I’m desperate to get the gorgeous house, so much so that not even I feel convinced by my scepticism. “I’m an investigative journalist,” I say, as if that adds weight.

“Look you can’t make a deposit at Spar without an ID book. You have an ID. I must have an ID book to receive the money. It’s safe,” he assures with a rationalisation that makes no sense. But I’m figuring that if I lose R5,000 it’s not that much (when clearly it is). I’m trying to tell my self its worth it for the chance of getting to rent a dream house in a good suburb for an exceptional price. Here my greed is messing with my good sense.

“How did you get to the point where you have so many houses? Is this how you live,” I ask trying to find out more about de Bruin before I agree to hand over the cash I’ve just borrowed to him.

“I’m an orphan,” he says. “I was adopted and then abandoned by my adoptive parents when I was 18,” he tells me. “I lived on the streets for about two years and then went to a property seminar where I heard someone speaking about how to make wealth using property,” he said in a thick, guttural accent.

“The first six years were terrible. I worked hard and saved every single penny I had. And then I went and got an entire building and rented it out. That first small apartment block was quite tough – I never had money then, but after the third and fourth house I really started doing well. Now I’m a multi-millionaire,” he declared.

“Wow. That’s quite a story. You should write a book,” I say. “Yes. There’s a woman in Cape Town who wants to write my story. But let me tell you something else. Something you mustn’t tell anyone else. I have HIV and I am the longest surviving person in South Africa with HIV. I smoke 20 cigarettes a day, but I’ve been living with HIV for over twenty years now,” he explained.

“And you know what?” he volunteered. “I’ve got no one. I’m not married. I’ve got no family. All I’ve got is the people who rent from me. I take care of them. I look after them because that’s all I’ve got,” he says. “In fact I’ve decided that when I die the people who live in my houses will get to keep them,” he said.

I’m feeling conflicted. The story is so big and so grand. I so want it to be true. Not only do I want to live in a beautiful house that’s a bit out of my budget, but I want a fairytale reality where orphaned street kids become property moguls who survive despite being infected by a terrible disease that has killed millions. I want to believe what is patently a lie.

De Bruin’s still telling me his story. I’ve got all his details, loaned some cash from a friend, and after our chat I’m going to Spar to do that transfer. While de Bruin and I are chatting there’s a gnawing sense of unease growing in the pit of my stomach. After I put the phone down, my boyfriend does a search on the Tshwane municipal rates site to see who owns the house. My boyfriend comes through with the bad news – the beautiful house in the same neighbourhood as the cottage we’re currently in isn’t owned by de Bruin.

I go to the classified site. De Bruin’s ad is gone. Deleted. My boyfriend and I start scouring the property site until we find the same gorgeous house we wanted to rent. But it is under the “For Sale” section and has been reserved. We trace the home owner’s details and make a call.

The owner of the home tells us he’s had to deal with streams of disappointed people pitching up outside his home all day. De Bruin’s obviously been sending people he can’t head off at the pass, to the house. A mobile phone, a Gmail account and a couple of free classified ads was all it took for De Bruin’s con to be set up. All it needed to work was for a few people gullible enough, or naive enough, or desperate enough to believe him. And I almost did.

De Bruin – or whatever his real name is – used the photographs of the beautiful house and copied the exact description of the house from a local property site. The house is situated in a sought-after area and De Bruin pegged the rental price extremely low - people must have flocked to his juicy bait. But how many of them succumbed? If ten did it means that this con artist could have secured R50,000 for a day or so’s work.

A Google of “Johan de Bruin” and “Centurion” showed that this grifter wasn’t running only one con. There were two cons I could find for this particular area. Who knows how many others he was running, in different areas and using different fake identities?

A local property lawyer I spoke to afterward said that this type of con isn’t uncommon. There are a couple of variants of it. The most recent he’d seen involved obviously fake ID documents to try assure would-be renters to part with their deposits before seeing the house they wanted to rent.

Johan de Bruin, his mobile number and Gmail account has been reported to the authorities, and the free classified service he used has now blacklisted him. But the problem with sociopaths is that they aren’t deterred. De Bruin will likely keep conning people until he is caught and locked up.

The moral of my tale? If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. There’s wisdom in that old adage.

But the real insight to this story is that sociopaths are charming. Over the phone Johan de Bruin came across as warm, interesting and charismatic. I wanted to believe him. I almost did. And this very nearly cost me R5,000.00 I didn’t have.

TOPICS:  Civil Society Fraud Society

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