The scene: a £3.95 million mansion in a discreet, footballer-friendly north London suburb. Estate agent Sharon Hicks is showing a twenty-something couple around the property because the young man — she has been informed by his excited fiancée, as he calls her — is poised to sign a lucrative contract with Arsenal and the pair want a home suitable for a future Premiership star.
Despite the couple's youth, Hicks, a negotiator at the Barnet branch of Savills, was not immediately suspicious: Hadley Wood is a magnet for Premiership players — Tottenham stars Robbie Keane, Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar all live in the area.
Over the course of the next week the young pair made two lengthy viewings and then made an offer.
So Hicks, following the normal procedure, politely asked to see a bank statement, though she would have been happy with a letter from a solicitor or a reference from the young man's agent, just something to establish credentials. The excited girlfriend continued to call with questions about the house but the boyfriend remained strangely silent. He was always "at his medical" or just "unavailable". Says Hicks: "In the end I rang Arsenal — but they said they'd never heard of him."
'We all spend a good deal of time in fantasy but most of us never try to put it into reality. Phantom buyers will go as far as they possibly can to live out their fantasy'
It then emerged that the girlfriend had not seen her "boyfriend" for some weeks either. "When she rang again I had to tell her that that I was sorry but Arsenal had never heard of him," recalls Hicks. "I felt quite sorry for her, with all her hopes of becoming a WAG. She sounded so unhappy but said her mum had been warning her about 'that boy'."
Most people have, from time to time, gone online and enviously checked out details of properties they can't possibly afford, or even gone for a quick look at something fabulous near them that they know they could never stretch to. Agents are used to harmless voyeurs. But a new breed is developing — the "phantom buyers" who will hire big cars, stay in top-end hotels and visit multimillion-pound mansions with their fake partners, all to play the game of being a millionaire for a month or two.
The strange case of Mr Copper Finger
Who would not be impressed with Fairfax Homes? Seriously expensive, bespoke mansions built for high rollers to enjoy the elegant grandeur of the archetypal country mansion at the end of a tree-lined drive set in many acres. An intimidating piece of real estate which, you would think, would scare off anyone with less than a wallet full of credit cards to cling to for confidence.
John McLean, the tall and elegant chairman of Fairfax Properties, a man with a spot of Hollywood glamour about him, is the bespoke developer in charge of dispensing these glamorous trinkets to the rich in prime locations in Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire.
He is a man who spares no expense with the build, using the finest handmade bricks, craftsman-carved banisters, oak-panelled drawing rooms and hi-tech and hi-spec everything. He is proud of his homes and happy to show them off to would-be owners. "So I was recently understandably delighted when a smartly dressed couple in their sixties rolled up in their Bentley and after an extensive viewing of a house in an estate near Newbury made an offer that very afternoon."
In hindsight, he says, the fact that the pair offered the full asking price — £2.25 million — with no attempt at negotiation should have tipped him off that something was up. The husband told McLean he had made millions as a copper mining engineer in Africa and was now looking to put down roots in the UK.
Over a period of about three weeks Mr and Mrs Copper Finger, as staff nicknamed them, (staying in a surprisingly average hotel in Newbury), devoted their days to viewings, measuring up, making suggestions on little ways they could personalise areas to suit them better, Mr Copper Finger taking an interest in his office and security arrangements for his art collection, while Mrs Copper Finger pored over the kitchen designs.
McLean says: "It was all going so well that we got to the point of drawing up a memorandum of sale. Then the fun started. He told us that the deal he was doing to sell the copper mines was not going well. Then their visits ceased, they did not put down a penny in deposit.
"We waited to hear from them and the procrastination got worse until, eventually, we closed the books on the sale. They just disappeared." McLean adds: "You just can't ever tell initially who people are any more. Pop stars turn up looking shabby, everyone wears jeans no matter how rich they are, and you cannot check people out easily."
It was his second phantom buyer episode in quick succession. Earlier this year, he experienced a scenario with a "wealthy developer" who offered to buy a £2.95 million, five-bedroom house near Winchester. This "buyer" had plans drawn up of how he wanted "his house" finished — down to the species of shrubs in the garden and stabling for his wife's horses — when he pulled out some months later: his so-called secretary rang to say his health was failing.
McLean says: "I think they are just attention-seekers, longing to be rich. We do pay a lot of attention to our buyers and these people love being treated like people with loads of money." 'We all have our fantasies but most of us don't try to turn them into reality'
'The very nature of beauty makes us want to possess it'
Dorothy Rowe, a psychologist and writer of the book Why We Lie, says some people may visit a house out of simple, healthy nosiness. Others need to live the dream in this age fuelled by celebrity culture.
"There are people who engage in a lot of fantasy behaviour," she says. "We all spend a good deal of time in fantasy but most of us never try to put it into reality. Phantom buyers will go as far as they possibly can to live out their fantasy.
"Is it escapism? Many people lead very dull lives, they haven't got much money and nothing interesting happens to them. They feel excluded from the rich world where celebrities do fantastic things, and this is when they hatch a plot. A lot of people will get dressed up and go into a jewellery shop and try things on. This is the same sort of thing. They are just trying to make their lives more interesting."
Mark Coulson, principal lecturer in psychology at Middlesex University, thinks phantom buyers are hopelessly attracted to grand houses and the lifestyle they appear to offer.
"The very nature of beauty makes us want to possess it," he explains. "They want to know just how good a £20 million house is inside. To get inside requires a certain amount of subterfuge and to carry on the fantasy we have to make an offer fairly quickly to keep the pretence. It's not healthy, but people will do quite bizarre things."