The estate agent watchdog is looking into whether five agencies breached trade regulations by promoting homes at five new developments on a mainland website.
Reviewing its work over the past year, Estate Agents Authority chairwoman Vivien Chan told a press conference yesterday that the authority had launched investigations involving 28 agents from five Hong Kong estate agencies.
The probes were begun in response to media reports, she said.
'We regulate anyone who sells Hong Kong properties, no matter whether they do it locally, overseas or online,' she said. 'We will step up online patrols in future.'
The plan to strengthen monitoring comes amid increased investment by mainlanders in Hong Kong's property market and the industry's shift in focus to promoting sales online.
The authority could not confirm whether or not this was the first time it had taken action against promotions on mainland websites, but said such actions, if they happened in the past, were rare.
Without naming the five agencies, Chan said they had promoted sales on one mainland website without waiting for the Lands Department to give consent for developers to sell the projects, and without written agreement from the developers - in violation of trade regulations.
Some even quoted prices before they were announced by the developers. Others were found to have posted false or misleading advertisements online.
Chan said even if the online promotional activities were done by the agencies' mainland subsidiaries, the watchdog would still take action against the parent company in Hong Kong if a sale took place.
'But if the agencies hired mainland residents and they just posted the misleading ads and did not conclude a deal, it would be difficult for us to take action,' she admitted.
The watchdog's disciplinary options range from a reprimand to revoking licences. It is a criminal offence for a Hong Kong agency to hire anyone without an agent's licence to sell Hong Kong properties.
The authority plans to communicate with the website service providers to ensure online advertisements are in compliance with the law.
According to media reports in recent months, some agents have published prices and floor plans for two developments - Sun Hung Kai Properties' Century Gateway in Tuen Mun, and New World Development's The Riverpark in Sha Tin - on the mainland website www. hkproperty.com.
In those cases, the developers had not obtained the Lands Department's consent to sell.
Even so, some agents left their photos and contact numbers on the website.
Louis Chan Wing-kit, managing director of Centaline Property Agency's residential unit, declined to comment.
Midland Realty did not reply to queries.
The watchdog conducted 325 spot checks of online property advertisements from January to June this year, up from 222 in the same period last year.
In the first half of the year, it took disciplinary action against 199 agents for various breaches, ranging from providing misleading information to failing to conduct a land search for homebuyers.
Of these agents, 100 received a reprimand, 33 were fined, 117 had new conditions attached to their licences and 22 had their licences suspended.