A senior executive at a Vancouver marketing firm was forced to resign after employees of the company were caught posing as the daughters of rich Chinese property buyers in interviews with TV reporters.
The deception was intended to create the impression that Chinese buyers were still queuing up to buy into Vancouver's teetering real estate market, which has long been fuelled by money from China and is now rated as the second least-affordable city in the world, behind Hong Kong, according to the Demographia consultancy.
Cameron McNeill, president of MAC Marketing Solutions, announced the decision after the scam was exposed by a blogger.
"I apologise for that incident and pledge that nothing like this will happen again at MAC," McNeill said. "Having had the opportunity to assess the situation, I have taken decisive actions. Although it will take time, we hope that we can earn back our good reputation and your trust. This situation has been difficult for everyone and as a company, we will learn from this, grow stronger and be better for it."
He said he had accepted the resignation of a senior manager involved in the fakery.
The scandal erupted after a series of news reports this month, sourced to MAC Marketing, suggested that an influx of Chinese buyers would give the Vancouver property market a boost over the Lunar New Year period. That would have been in contrast to statistics from the local real estate board showing that prices have been steadily falling in Vancouver for the past eight months.
TV news crews at an open house for the new Maddox apartments in downtown Vancouver on February 9 were introduced to two buyers supposedly from China to support the notion of a Lunar New Year boost, who identified themselves as sisters Chris and Amanda Lee. In an interview with CTV, Chris Lee said: "I'm from China, and that is my sister, Amanda. So, we are looking for a place together."
She told the reporter their parents were visiting Vancouver for Lunar New Year and were bankrolling the sisters' purchase of an apartment. "So, if we like this place, we have to tell them and they make the decision. Yes, really, Chinese people like to buy at this time [Lunar New Year]."
A similar story was carried by CBC, featuring Chinese house hunters Chris and Amanda Lee.
Two days earlier, a story predicting a Lunar New Year boost in property sales was carried by The Vancouver Sun newspaper, quoting McNeill.
However, an anonymous local real estate blogger known as the Rainforest Whisperer last week questioned whether the sisters were authentic Chinese buyers, after another internet posting showed that an "Amanda Lee" worked for MAC on the Maddox project. Photos on a Facebook profile in the name of the MAC employee revealed her to be the same Amanda Lee who appeared in the TV reports.
MAC was eventually forced to admit that both the "Lee sisters" were its employees, and that they weren't even sisters. MAC hasn't revealed the true identity of "Chris Lee".
"We regret we did not do a better job at ensuring full transparency with those interviewed and apologise for any misunderstanding this may have caused," MAC said last week.
McNeill told the newspaper : "I don't know if it was an overzealous employee or if this happened in a formalised way."
In announcing the resignation on Wednesday, McNeill refused to reveal the identity of the executive who quit.
"McNeill owes an explanation to the media [whom MAC duped], to the broader real estate community [whose reputation MAC has irrevocably damaged], and to the general public [the ultimate targets of this fraud]," the Rainforest Whisperer wrote.
It's not the first time that spurious reports about buyers from China have been used to hype the Vancouver property market. In one incident in 2011, a local marketer tipped off TV reporters that a group of property buyers from China were taking helicopter tours of the region to spot potential purchases. It was later revealed that the "Chinese investors" in the report were in fact Vancouver real estate agents of Asian descent.
The average price of a detached house in the core district of Vancouver West topped out at C$2.25 million (HK$17.13 million) last May. It has since fallen by more than 11 per cent.