Solar panel scam: Hunt for the identity thief who cost scores of Australians their dream
To his staff he was Tony Smith. To banks and financial authorities he was Tony Agius.
To investigators he appears to be little more than a puff of smoke left behind by someone who could be living in Asia, possibly Hong Kong or Beijing.
And to a growing list of consumers across the country who believed they were buying solar panels for their homes, he is the man who stole their savings.
The story of a million dollar-scam began in March when the real Tony Agius, of suburban south Brisbane, answered an online job ad seeking solar panel sales people.
Mr Agius provided a scan of his driver’s licence to his supposed new boss – crucially, someone he had never laid eyes on and who he only communicated with via email.
Days later, on March 28, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission registered a change in officeholders at a company called LG Energy Solutions Pty Ltd.
The sole director became Anthony Agius of Underwood in Brisbane.
According to its ASIC company extract, the address of LG Energy Solutions was level 27, 127 Creek Street in Brisbane’s CBD.
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Alarm bells should have rung at the corporate regulator. The building only has 23 floors.
By April, LG Energy Solutions’ “Easter Sale” was popular in the booming market for rooftop solar and battery packages, a product heavily subsidised by the federal government’s solar rebate.
Calling himself Tony Smith, the man no one had seen hired sales staff over the internet on commission-only contracts to flog his “product”.
This turned out to be an easy job for any half-experienced seller because LG Energy Solutions was offering top of the range German-engineered LG panels.
For a package that LG, the Korean-owned conglomerate, sells for $25,000, LG Energy Solutions was offering for $15,999.
The company was advertising on Facebook, Gumtree and in Fairfax Media metro newspapers.
Anita Jackson, an experienced solar saleswoman, sold $140,000 worth of orders in her first week.
“It was a really bloody good price,” she told Fairfax Media.
She queried with Smith how it was that LG Energy Solutions could sell the same product so much cheaper but was told that as a “reseller”, the company could set its own price, while LG’s licensed distributors were forced to follow the Korean company’s price.
As April went on and a number of “red flags” were raised around dodgy tracking numbers and installations that had not happened, the truth dawned on Ms Jackson.
“I had to get in touch with my customers and let them know it was a complete scam,” she said.
There had never been any solar panels and Smith’s staff had been selling little more than fresh air.
Making things worse, consumers had rushed to lock in the deal of a lifetime by agreeing to pay the total price upfront.
Fairfax Media has learned of one buyer who lost $35,000.
Helen Vleugel, a retiree from Mt Martha in Victoria, and her husband Peter paid $9999 for panels that will never be installed.
“You’re looking at the LG logo wondering how this can be a fraud,” she said. “It leaves you not wanting to buy anything off the internet ever again.”
Some consumers have taken to solar industry online chat forums to seek answers.
One poster, “Smartywishbone”, said: “We are now so sad. My wife and I bought a system from these people (which was to be installed next week) for our son and daughter in law. We were hoping to help them with cost of living as they have a young family and are struggling with mortgage payment. Our $10,000 is now lost. We researched the company online – seemed all good.”
Iain Luck, who paid $9999 for panels for his home in Warragul, regional Victoria, said: “I’ve been saving forever to get solar panels.”
The Vleugels were alerted on April 21 in a “weird” phone call by their bank, ANZ. Its fraud department had been alerted to the scam but Ms Vleugel was left wondering why her payment, made 48 hours before, could not be frozen.
At Bendigo Bank, the accounts of LG Energy Solutions had been frozen but not before Smith had managed to transfer what could turn out to be up to $1 million offshore.
The money was transferred to a company known as “Four Horsemen Limited”.
In a bizarre twist, Smith appointed Sydney liquidator Steven Kugel, instructing him to wind up the company.
Mr Kugel believes his appointment could have been part of a naive plan to free up the final transfer from Bendigo Bank.
What it did was lift the lid on the scale of wreckage left behind by the identity thief.
There are 60 victims owed more than $700,000 but Mr Kugel suspects there are more, including people too embarrassed to come forward.
According to people who spoke to Fairfax Media, the fraud is being investigated by ASIC, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Queensland Fair Trading and Queensland Police, among others.
An ASIC spokesman said it was “aware of the matter” but no other agency would comment on the record.
DFAT is interested because Smith provided a fake passport to Mr Kugel bearing the same details as the driver’s licence of Brisbane’s Tony Agius.
The real Agius is a citizen of Malta who does not have an Australian passport.
The fake Agius is said to be well-spoken with an Australian accent, which one person said has a “hint of British”.
According to an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of NSW, at various times Smith has told Mr Kugel that he is in Hong Kong but resides mainly in Beijing.
At one time he even claimed that he had been the victim of identity theft, the court has been told.
In a separate court case that happened before Smith closed LG Energy Solutions, the company was sued by the real LG for its website and promotional material which could mislead consumers into believing they were dealing with the reputable LG.
In a statement, LG solar marketing manager Russ Prendergast said: “As soon as we were alerted to the issue, LG Electronics Australia took immediate and aggressive legal action against the company, including seeking an urgent injunction in the Federal Circuit Court. We were successful in obtaining the injunction to stop the company leveraging the LG brand and believe that this action did help disrupt their activity.”