He’s a man of many names-staff knew him as Tony Smith while banks and other financial institutions knew him as Tony Agius. To investigators he is nothing but the shadow of someone who resides in Asia, Beijing, or possibly Hong Kong.
However, to the rising number of Australian consumers duped into purchasing solar PV systems for their homes, he is now a thief who has cost them their savings and shattered their dreams.
The whole multi-million dollar saga began in March when the man Tony Agius, residing at the suburban south Brisbane at the time, responded to an online job ad looking for sales people for solar panels.
Mr Agius then presented a scan of his driver’s license to his potential new boss – obviously, a person he had only interacted with via email.
Come March 28, LG Energy Solutions Pty Ltd registered a change in officeholders with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. Anthony Agius of Underwood, Brisbane, was the sole director.
The warning signs
A keen look at an extract from the ASIC reveals that, LG Energy Solutions indicated its address as level 27, 127 Creek Street in Brisbane’s CBD. That alone should have made the corporate regulator raise the red flag since the supposed building only holds 23 floors and is a know virtual office in Brisbane.
In April, LG Energy Solutions’ “Easter Sale” rocked the market with its booming rooftop solar and battery packages—a product that is substantially subsidized through the solar rebate provided by the federal government.
Taking advantage of the internet and referring to himself as Tony Smith, he hired sales staff on commission-only contracts to drive his “product” to the masses. Any inexperienced salesperson can tell you this was obviously a lucrative job, owing to the fact that the LG Energy Solutions company was providing German-engineered LG panels; a top of the range technology.
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Business was a bloody good deal because while the real LG, the Korean-owned conglomerate package was going for $25,000, LG Energy Solutions offered it for just $15,999.
In the first week of business, Anita Jackson, a seasoned solar saleslady sold $140,000 worth of orders. The company launched advertising campaigns almost everywhere; Gumtree, Facebook, Australian Solar Quotes and even in Fairfax Media metro newspapers.
During April, alarm bells began ringing and there were concerns about the company’s dodgy tracking numbers and installations that never happened- ‘Smith’’s staff had been selling fresh air, not solar panels.
Consumers scammed over $700,000
But the worst was yet to come; several consumers had even locked in for a lifetime deal by agreeing to pay the whole price upfront. One buyer lost $35,000. Others, Helen Vleugel and her husband Peter both retirees based in Mt Martha paid $9,999 for solar panels they never saw.
“Smartywishbone”, a poster on solar industry chat forum claims to have lost a whole $10,000 for panels that will never be installed. These buyers are devastated because they even carried out due diligence online and apparently all seemed legitimate.
The Vleugels were later alerted via an “odd” phone call from their bank, ANZ. Its fraud department had raised a red flag against the company. However, Ms Vleugel could not just understand why the bank could not freeze a payment she had made just 48 hours before.
Bendigo Bank immediately froze the accounts of LG Energy Solutions but this was not before Smith had transferred up to $1 million overseas to a company called “Four Horsemen Limited”.
In a strange twist to the whole solar scam, Smith appointed and instructed Sydney liquidator Steven Kugel to wind up the company. Later it dawned on Mr Kugel that his appointment was just a sham and a naive way of freeing up the identity thief’s final transfer from Bendigo Bank.
60 victims of the scam are now owed more than $700,000 according to Mr Kugel, and the number could even increase. The fraud is currently being investigated by various departments including the ASIC, the Queensland Fair Trading, Queensland Police and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade among others. The ASIC spokesman stated it was “aware of the matter”. None of the other agencies have commented on record as of yet.
DFAT is really interested in the case because ‘Smith’ presented to Mr Kugel a fake passport indicating he was Brisbane’s Tony Agius; the same details as the driver’s license. The real Agius hails from Malta and does not have an Australian passport.
Apparently, the bogus Agius is fluent with an Australian accent, which one person added has a “hint of British”.
In one of the affidavits filed with the NSW Supreme Court, Mr Kugel says on several occasions ‘Smith’ claimed to be based in Hong Kong but residing mainly in Beijing. He once claimed to have become a victim of identity theft, the court heard.
Before Smith closed LG Energy Solutions, the company had been sued by the real LG for its website and promotional material which closely mimics its products and could easily mislead consumers into buying the products thinking they were dealing with the reputable LG brand.
In a statement, Russ Prendergast the LG solar marketing manager 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.”