Ask An Ambassador: Look Out For Con Artists

By
Real Estate Agent with Transaction Alliance 513.520.5305 www.LizTour.com SAL.2002007747

You work for years producing content, IDX pages, refining your website, seeking that page 1 placement for key search results, all with one goal:  to attract business.

The phone rings, text dings, email "you've got mail", the start of (hopefully) a productive relationship.

BUT...now all leads developed from our work are GOOD leads.

Of course there are  those already working with an agent, the brain pickers, the "I don't need an agent, just tell me the price", and the like, but that's not what this is about.

There are those out there far, far worse.  Literal law breakers.

True story follows:

TL;DR version:  con artist fakes being a seller, agent figures it out.  Read for details:

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we received a contact form for a CMA request from our oldest website:  Vacant land, fairly level, just down the street from the subdivision we've done our 2nd leading amount of business.

CMA performed and sent over to the seller after checking the county records.  Land is fairly level, buildable, and the contacts name matched the county records.

It wouldn't be the first time we've worked with out of state clients that we've never met and so far nothing seems out of place.

The seller follows up with a phone call and says a couple of things that seem a bit off, but not too off.

He seems unusually interested in a quick sale.  By itself, nothing wrong with that.  Financially motivated to get it done?

He's okay with the CMA price...but he's been talking to other agents who want to list it, but wants to work with me so get the listing agreement over for him to electronically sign.  He's REALLY busy with his businesses so may be tough to reach.

He signs the listing agreement late Saturday night and we plan to go live in MLS on Monday morning.  Sunday I go out to the lot, check out the two acres a bit further, get some pictures, place a sign.

But something doesn't feel QUITE right.  By itself, nothing wrong with an "outlook" email address.  Nothing wrong with being motivated to sell.  Nothing wrong with being an out of state seller.  I asked for an address for the seller and he balked, I've sold other property and the agents didn't need that information.

But...it just doesn't FEEL right.  And as an engineer who isn't much on EQ stuff, for it to not FEEL right sends me digging for more information, especially since he balked at providing an address.  And another red flag, when's the last time a seller didn't ASK about your commission rate?  He didn't.

The seller's phone call was from White Plains, NY.  95 cents for a Spokeo report and there was no name/address associated with the property, just a landline.

I know the owner was in the restaurant business, and had a local restaurant at one point, and had also had one in Pennsylvania, so why the NY phone number???

Not much I could do over the weekend beyond some general searching, so the listing went live on Monday as planned.  I verify with the county the need for a septic field and water is available at the street.  We have showings and calls, and a builder very interested in buying the property.

But I still have suspicions, and for reasons I won't go into, asking for a copy of his driver's license wasn't really on the table.  I checked with my broker and my preferred title company, and not much at that point they could recommend.

I bounced my concerns off of another Rainer who I assumed does a fair amount of business with out of state buyers in her market.  Her search service didn't provide any additional information either, but there was one more rabbit hole to go down.  The county auditor's site had the tax bill going to an address in SC, not NY.  A check of the address confirmed the owner of the land lived there, and another Spokeo report and I had names, emails and phone numbers to try.  The phone numbers turned out to be old, but one of the email tied up to several social media accounts, which in turn led me to the seller's name being tied with several NC restaurants.

It took some trying (phone lines down for a day due to a power outage), but I finally got in touch with the owner.  The REAL owner for the property.  Of course he was surprised when I asked if he was the guy I'd been in contact with about selling his Ohio land?  It took some explaining as to what had happened and how I'd tracked him down.  He wanted to meet in a couple of days as he was coming back to Ohio to check on a local restaurant. 

In the interim, the FAKE owner is pressing for an offer from the builder, but by now I know he's FAKE.

I contact our local MLS and explain the fraud and get the listing CANX.  I explain to the builder and other interested agents what happened.

I meet with the REAL owner on Friday.  He's got plans to build on the property in the future, so no interest in selling.  We check in with the local police department and they refer us to the county sheriff's office.

I meet with a deputy that morning and fill out a police report, along with providing copies of all the emails from the FAKE seller, screen cap of the phone number, etc.

At this point I've declined all calls from the FAKE seller, who is now calling from a Washington DC landline (again, no address or details on Spokeo).

The REAL seller and I are on good terms.  He's thankful that I dug into this and reached out to him.  If he changes his mind about selling, he promised to contact me to help.

But today, the same FAKE person hit me up to list another vacant land property.  This time he's pretending to be a woman (I guess he didn't know that my website would identify the contact under the original name he provided), and using the same DC number he's been calling me from.  More info was forwarded to the deputy.

I've reached out to our local MLS about putting out a warning about the con artists attempting to sell land that isn't theirs.

The only thing I haven't checked out yet is if iHouse can identify the IP addresses that sent the contact form.

Maybe the police can't do anything about this.  Maybe it takes more tools than they have. 

But at least I know we avoided a mess that might not have been found out until closing, or maybe not even then.

Keep your eyes open, it's a strange business we're in.

Until next Tuesday, just Ask An Ambassador if you need help,

Bill & Liz aka BLiz

Posted by

Serving Warren County Ohio & Adjacent Areas

The Liz Spear Team of Transaction Alliance
Elizabeth Spear, ABR, Ohio License SAL.2002007747

William (Bill) Spear, Ohio License SAL.2004011109  Kentucky 77938
Ask for us by name if you visit the office!

EHO
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Liz Direct: 513-265-3004     
Fax: 866-302-8418

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Comments (24)

Dorie Dillard Austin TX
Coldwell Banker Realty ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
NW Austin ~ Canyon Creek and Spicewood/Balcones

Good morning Bill,

We do have to be viligant..it is a crazy time out there in real estate right now! So many turning toward scamming than working honestly! They do have to a playbook and we need to be a step ahead of them and recognize it.

Dec 05, 2023 07:01 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

And that was the thing, any piece of it by itself I could rationalize as being okay, but on the whole, it didn't add up.

Dec 05, 2023 07:44 AM
Carol Williams
Although I'm retired, I love sharing my knowledge and learning from other real estate industry professionals. - Wenatchee, WA
Retired Agent / Broker / Prop. Mgr, Wenatchee, WA

Hi Bill,
It seems like we have to verify everyone, especially those from out of town. It's sad but our current reality.

Dec 05, 2023 08:54 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

I think the out of towners are the biggest risk for fraud.  Easy enough to create a generic email that LOOKS like the owner, and even if I'd met the scammer in person how would I know that it's not the right guy.

The hole in their scam is how do they provide official ID to the title company prior to a remote closing?  Unless they can fake a driver's license or passport, all they would have done is cause a buyer to have spent money on inspections, etc., but gain nothing.

Dec 05, 2023 09:10 AM
Dr. Paula McDonald
Beam & Branch Realty - Granbury, TX
Granbury, TX 936-203-0279

Oh, the tales we have in this business. I have been getting so many fake peeps - drives me nuts.

Dec 05, 2023 10:40 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

And with technology, who knows how far it will go?

Dec 06, 2023 05:41 AM
Ginger Harper
Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage~ Ginger Harper Real Estate Team - Southport, NC
Your Southport~Oak Island Agent~Brunswick County!

Thank you for a informative post.  Thanks so much.

 

Dec 05, 2023 01:35 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

You're welcome!

Dec 06, 2023 05:42 AM
Brian England
Ambrose Realty Management LLC - Gilbert, AZ
MBA, GRI, REALTOR® Real Estate in East Valley AZ

Candice A. Donofrio told me about this yesterday.  I can recall a number of different occasions that I felt like I had to play along with something that I was pretty sure it was fake just in case it was legit, haha.

Dec 06, 2023 03:58 AM
Candice A. Donofrio

Yup, we have to exhaust every possibility although the scams are pretty textbook . . . 

Dec 06, 2023 05:04 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

And that's the thing, IF it was legit, I could have sold the property and closed to a cash buyer within 2-3 weeks.

Dec 06, 2023 05:44 AM
Leanne Smith
Dirt Road Real Estate - Golden Valley, AZ
The Grit and Gratitude Agent

At the end of your day, trust your "gut" your "spidey senses."  Great examples of how doing all the right things can still not be enough.

Dec 06, 2023 04:16 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

And that was the thing, any single thing could be explained away, but the sum definitely set off my personal alarms.

Dec 06, 2023 05:45 AM
Buzz Mackintosh
Mackintosh REALTORS - Frederick, MD
“Experience, reliable, leadership”

Recently received a referral to sell a lot where the seller referred did not match the tax card. When we contacted them they said they purchased the property at tax sale, they were interested in a quick sale, but did not want it to be listed in the MLS. Red flag went up and we declined the referral.

Dec 06, 2023 04:46 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

Sell it, but DON'T use one of our primary marketing tools?  Yep, if they're legit, they might as well have Zillow FSBO'd it.

Dec 06, 2023 05:46 AM
Kat Palmiotti
eXp Commercial, Referral Divison - Kalispell, MT
Helping your Montana dreams take root

Wow, good for you for being able to root out the real owner, find him, and provide data for a possible investigation. It is so important that we listen to our guts! Thank for you for sharing this cautionary tale!

Dec 06, 2023 04:53 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

My hope was it gives other agents a heads up as to what is out there.  No reason they wouldn't be trying the same scam elsewhere.

Dec 06, 2023 05:47 AM
Anna "Banana" Kruchten
HomeSmart Real Estate - Phoenix, AZ
602-380-4886

Hi Bill we've had an awful lot of title theft in the valley of the sun this past couple of years.  Thankfully an attorney offers great workshops and classes on this subject and has kept us very well informed.  You are one awesome rat catcher!

Dec 06, 2023 11:05 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

I THINK the closing office would have detected before issuing monies, but the buyer would be out any inspection fees, the buyer's agent would have a check pulled out from them, etc.   Not good for our reputations so glad to catch it early.

Dec 06, 2023 01:17 PM
Jan Green - Scottsdale, AZ
Value Added Service, 602-620-2699 - Scottsdale, AZ
HomeSmart Elite Group, REALTOR®, EcoBroker, GREEN

Good for you for performing enough due diligence to ascertain the guy is a fraud! Locating the real owner is a good step, too.  I've had this exact same thing happen to me.  This was a North Scottsdale parcel of land in a cul-de-sac that was easily worth $750,000.  I use TruePeopleSearch.com, which will give enough data to help me to know if the caller is authentic.  The actual owner had no interest in selling either and thanked me for the phone call.  Before doing so, he said, "I'd like to see him try without the deed."  That's a whole nother blog post!

Dec 06, 2023 11:55 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

Perfect world, the real seller would have been open to a sale, but he's had an architect develop plans to eventually build, so no dice!

Dec 06, 2023 01:18 PM
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
DFW FINE PROPERTIES - Flower Mound, TX
Selling Homes Changing Lives

@Liz and Bill Spear - I am no genius but I saw lots of red flags. I recognized the signs because there is a reputable Title Company in Flower Mound, and the Attorney puts out weekly podcasts. The attorney has made it crystal clear about signs to watch out for and this was definitely textbook material on scams that you shared. 

Step-by-step you set up the scenario succinctly! Bravo! I liked that very much. As I was reading along it felt like Discovery when I worked in an Attorney's Office as a Paralegal. If only you could have gotten paid by the billable hours for all that work you did, it would have been a very good check!

Let your logic be your guide. You presented an excellent Case Study! I'd hire or recommend you anytime! 

Dec 06, 2023 04:29 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP , at least the only damage done was some lost time and a couple of bucks spent on Spokeo :)
One of the perks of my background is I like things to be logical, and when logic is being broken, I want to understand why.  In this case, enough pieces of the puzzle didn't fit, and I'm just stubborn enough to want to dig as far as I can to get answers.  In this case, I'll probably never know who was at the other end of the emails and phone calls, but at least I know I wouldn't find myself involved in a lawsuit later about landing being improperly sold.

Dec 06, 2023 07:43 PM
Sam Shueh
(408) 425-1601 - San Jose, CA
mba, cdpe, reopro, pe

Plenty of them coming daily/. Right now plenty of leads coming saying they want to buy a couple of rentals. When asked they mention they want to pay cash which is not uncommon. After asking for POF bank statements becoming dormant.

Dec 07, 2023 09:00 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

Sam, fortunately a segment of the market I don't work.

Dec 07, 2023 11:30 AM
Jeff Dowler, CRS
eXp Realty of California, Inc. - Carlsbad, CA
The Southern California Relocation Dude

Bill:

That's quite a story and a total waste of your time but we are hearing more and more about these types of scams. I think sharing the stories is helpful education for others who might see similar red flags waving.

Jeff

Dec 07, 2023 10:32 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

That's the hope, that others can recognize the signs based on what (and others) have witnessed.

Dec 07, 2023 11:30 AM
CANDACE (Candy) STEVENS, EA
Number Cruncher LLC - Overton, NV
Helping Taxpayers Resolve IRS problems

Wow...That is crazy.  Why can't people just be honest?

Dec 07, 2023 10:33 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

As much work as it takes to con people, there must be a big payoff when it works.

Dec 07, 2023 11:31 AM
Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, CRS
Fathom Realty Washington LLC - Tacoma, WA
South Puget Sound Washington Agent/Broker!

I have been down this road before also. The problem I have found is the scammer is always better prepared then most agents and thus we must keep digging until we can prove our point 110%. 🙂

Dec 07, 2023 12:08 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

It's not part of our standard to ask for driver's license/passport verification up front for out of staters, but maybe it should be.

Dec 07, 2023 01:06 PM
Debe Maxwell, CRS
Savvy + Company (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC
The RIGHT CHARLOTTE REALTOR!

WOWZA! I didn't hear the end of the story but, SO glad you did more digging after we spoke, Bill. I felt like something was off too - with the different locations of the faux seller.

The real owner's SC address was valid too, I guess. And, I love that you and the owner are now buddies!! What a crazy world we live in, eh? 

Dec 07, 2023 08:33 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

Turned out the power was out for the day at the restaurant, so that was why I had so much trouble reaching him the first day.  Caught up with him the next night.  Small world to have you live so close to his place!

Dec 08, 2023 03:38 PM
Debe Maxwell, CRS

For SURE! SO glad you caught it before this went to Contract, Liz and Bill Spear!

Dec 10, 2023 02:44 PM
Sheri Sperry - MCNE®
Coldwell Banker Realty - Sedona, AZ
(928) 274-7355 ~ YOUR Solutions REALTOR®

These scammers are looking for green agents who are hungry.   I have had 4 of these scammers in the past 2 months and about 3 more in the last two years.  It is getting worse.  

I look up the property on the tax records.  When the name does not match, I ask for a copy of the deed, and a copy of their passport.  It usually ends there.   Then I notify my broker.  Arizona is getting hit hard on these scams.

Dec 08, 2023 07:56 AM
Liz and Bill Spear

That was the kicker, tax records matched so for at least the initial phase looked okay.

Dec 08, 2023 03:39 PM
Hannah Williams
HomeStarr Realty - Philadelphia, PA
Expertise NE Philadelphia & Bucks 215-820-3376

Wow, and people think we have an easy job. Thankfully, you listened to your gut feeling.  

Dec 08, 2023 12:39 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

There is always something interesting in this business.

Dec 08, 2023 03:39 PM
Martin E. Kalisker, Esq.
Natick, MA
Real Estate Law From A Practical Perspective

As others have said, this one comes straight out of Chapter 1 of the Scammers Handbook.  I’m surprised he didn’t send you a check for doing something on the property, and ask you to send him a check back for the (large) overage.  If this had played out in Boston, our MLS would have immediately put out an alert to all Participants and not only would the local police have been involved, but also the FBI since the call originated in one state and the property, in another.  

As far back as 10 years ago when I owned and operated two residential real estate offices, the rule was:  No listing or buyer’s agency contract was  complete unless there had been a meeting in-person, a copy of a driver’s license (or passport, if they were not from or physically in the U.S.).  Our offices had Skype, so a video conference was also required for out of state or overseas customers who wished to become clients.). If it was a listing, we required the name of their lawyer (attorney closing state); if it was a buyer, they had to have a recent pre-approval letter from a lending institution - no “pre qualification” letter from brokers.  My transaction coordinator would then personally call the attorney or the lender to ensure that they knew their customer.  I don’t know if we intercepted any frauds, but I can tell you that, as the Managing Broker, we ended up turning away a lot of potential “business.”

Dec 09, 2023 08:50 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

In this case, raw land.  Really nothing that could be done that would require payment to the listing agent.

Dec 10, 2023 07:19 PM
John Juarez
The Medford Real Estate Team - Fremont, CA
ePRO, SRES, GRI, PMN

You sure dodged a bullet!

We have gotten warnings from our MLS and, I believe, from NAR about similar scams being perpetrated.

You were very wise to follow your instincts and not race to case a commission check like many other agents might have done.

Dec 16, 2023 05:44 PM
Liz and Bill Spear

John, Fortunately enough of a gut feeling to keep it from going further.

Dec 16, 2023 06:46 PM