Fraud and investment scams abound at all levels of the real estate market – whether it be a contractor who charges hundreds of dollars for work not done to an “investment agent” who embezzles hundreds of millions – protecting yourself can require a measure of vigilance and legwork, but it can also come down to exercising skepticism and common sense.
1. Title fraud.
Although relatively rare, one of the most devastating frauds for property owners is title fraud. This type of fraud starts with identity theft. The scammer will use false documents to pose as the property owner, registers forged documents transferring a property to his or her name, and then gets a new mortgage against the property. After securing a mortgage or line of credit, the criminal takes the cash and leaves the owner on the hook for future payments.
2. Foreclosure and home-equity fraud.
Criminals and criminal enterprises can take advantage of property owners who find themselves in a cash crunch, being short on funds for liabilities such as mortgage payments or other purposes. Two common scams that exploit a victim’s need for cash are foreclosure fraud and home-equity fraud.
3. Online rental/sale scams.
In these scams, rental property is advertised (usually at low costs) on online classified sites. The ads use information and photos describing the property that has been “scraped” from legitimate ads, such as those on the MLS. A scammer will impersonate the landlord, property manager or estate agent and will respond to emails and calls from prospective tenants. The scammer indicates he or she is unable to meet a prospective renter at the property, and instead proposes a meeting off site to exchange keys, sign a tenancy agreement and collect rental deposits. Victims may only learn they’ve been duped when they show up at a property to discover that it is already occupied.