I had big plans to call this blog post the Summer of Scams, you know like a play on words on of the Son of Sam case from New York back in the Summer of 1977. Then I realized not everyone is obsessed with true crime like I am, so it probably wouldn’t make sense, yet here I am telling you anyway and can’t think of a more clever title. But the fact is this crime spree of scams happening in real estate is not like the Son of Sam case and has been going on all over the country, and not just in the summer. Buying or selling a house usually involves the movement of hundreds of thousands of dollars from one person to another by way of a title company in most cases, so you can imagine all the bad people out there with some technological savvy try to prey on these situations around the sale of a house or property. Here’s a short list of scams to watch out for.

The vacant land scam

This is a very active one and has happened multiple times in west Michigan besides other parts of the country. A person usually from outside of the country gathers information about vacant land from public information avenues and contacts a realtor electronically to list the land for sale, however the person that has contacted the realtor is not that actual owner, and in many times has no relation to the owner and the real owner of the property has no idea. There are active cases with the FBI right now trying to further investigate it. Here’s the short version of what can happen from our local association (GRAR): “We have confirmed 18 cases of seller impersonation cases involving vacant land right here in West Michigan - and that number is increasing. The scammers are so sophisticated that they are not only impersonating sellers, but also notaries. In one instance, the scammer hired an attorney to draft a Certificate of Trust Existence as the property was held in trust and also impersonated someone with COPD in the initial call (coughing, machines in the background, etc.) and requested that all communications be sent electronically thereafter.”

Buyer scams

These are unfortunately common too, where someone is pretending to be a buyer, usually from out of town. Buyer scams present a number of scary situations for realtors number one being our safety as agents meeting people or going to homes we may not be familiar with, also the sharing of our contact information to communicate with these possible buyers, and also our time since we are not paid an hourly rate we work on commission so we are putting in the work and effort on the front end of these transaction. We are lucky enough to receive some alerts from the association when it appears to be common or a trend with similar situations arising that are too common to ignore such as this one: "A broker has reached out to let us know of a potential scam.  Multiple agents within his firm have received a lead via the brokerage’s website that is raising red flags.  Some details are consistent, such as: the buyer claims to live in California but is planning to move to Michigan because he recently invested in a business in Canada.  He is searching for a large home in the $1 million + range, will be paying cash, and will communicate via WhatsApp.  Other details vary, such as:  he told some agents that his last name is Zhao, told others that his last name is Wong, and the California city where he allegedly lives varies." 

Wire fraud and banking scams

These scams are also extremely prevalent in real estate and everyday life. Realtors, Lenders, and Title companies all commonly have messages like below at the bottom of their emails to help remind us all that this is out there: 

“Caution: Wire transfer fraud is on the rise. If you receive an email or text message containing wire ​instructions, call the closing agent or attorney at a verified phone number immediately to ​confirm the information prior to sending the funds. You will never receive wire instructions or ​changes to previously provided wire instructions from Guild Mortgage Company. Any such ​communications should be considered suspicious and reported to your Loan Officer.”

“Beware of cybercrime! If you receive an e-mail or any other communication that appears to be generated from a First American Title Insurance Company employee that contains new, revised or altered bank wire instructions, consider it suspect and call our office at a number you trust. Our wire instructions do not change. This message contains confidential information intended only for the use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain information that is privileged. If you are not the intended recipient, or the person responsible for delivering it to the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that reading, disseminating, distributing or copying this message is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message by mistake, please immediately notify us by replying to the message and delete the original message immediately thereafter.”

Even this example from a coworker of mine that is not in the middle of a real estate transaction and received a phone call on a normal Tuesday from someone at his bank's fraud center. They stated they wanted to review some fraudulent activity with him, of course, he agreed. They examined the activity of stores like Apple and Target and online transfer. At this point, he was concerned that someone had his card, account username, and password. He replied to them that block the card block the account login. She then asked me for the account username, which he provided because it is sometimes a verification question. Then she asked for the old password so she could reset the account, that was the giveaway for him. He told her no and that he was not going to give her the password, and he was going to call back the bank's number to talk to the fraud department. When he called the bank and spoke to the fraud department, there was no suspicious activity on the account, and they didn't make the earlier phone call.

In Conclusion

Be careful out there, don’t provide information to just anyone on the phone or through text messages even if you recognize the business name. Never give personal information over the phone when you have not initiated the phone call or conversation. Never give anyone your password, they do not need it if they are from where they say they are. If you are suspicious at any time during a phone call or electronic communication that the person is who they say they are, hang up and call them back on their main phone number. If it is a request regarding bank account information and you are involved with a real estate transaction, verify with your agent or title company what the steps should be and what they look like.


Posted by Ariel Christy on
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