At some point in the past 10-15 years, it is safe to say that everyone with an email address has received an official-looking email about a very high-ranking official in a country you probably never heard of who recently passed away leaving a large, unclaimed inheritance. How lucky it is that they picked you, YOU, out of everyone else in the world, to claim this inheritance and retire into a life of excess and opulence… BUT, the only catch is you have to send them a few hundred bucks, or your bank account information for the money transfer. Sounds good? Well, to many people, it did. The Nigerian Money Scam, as this email scheme came to be called, became one of the most popular scams in the civilized world. Anyone with an email address can attempt the scam, and anyone else with an email address can become the victim.
In the Real Estate field, scams are a little more daring and elaborate. After all, even the most talented grifter would be hard-pressed to convince someone to put down a real estate mortgage deposit over email. Below is a rundown of some of the more common intricate schemes con artists posing as real estate agents use to prey on unsuspecting victims:
Borrowing Without Permission
Scenario: Homeowners left for an extended vacation, moved to Florida for the winter, left for a job out of state or got deployed for military service. The house is empty. Scam artists scope out these houses, make duplicate keys and/or change locks, and the house is pretty much theirs. Some of these scammers even go as far as having full open houses to get potential renters or buyers interested! Once a buyer is lined up, the scammer takes the deposit and disappears. In case of a renter, the scam artist can even allow the renter to move in and wind up collecting rent money up until the point the real homeowners show up… and disappear then.
The same scenario can also be used on homes that are in foreclosure or up for sale… as long as the house is empty for the foreseeable future, it is a prime target for a Real Estate scam.
Scenario: A potential renter is moving into town and found an incredible deal on an apartment… the price is almost too good to be true, they just have to wire money for the deposit and paperwork. In truth, the apartment is either already rented, or doesn’t exist at all. By the time the renter gets in town and figures out their incredible deal doesn’t exist, the scammer posing as an agent who got the deposit wire is long gone.
This scam is particularly popular with out-of-towners who do not have the ability to see the place in person.
Protecting Yourself Against These Scams
Now that we’ve scared you sufficiently, here are a few tips that will help you from becoming a victim. First and foremost, do your homework. This goes for both the property you are interested in, and the real estate agent you are working with. Unless they came recommended by someone you know well, go online, read some reviews, see what places they’ve rented or sold previously, and what people are saying. See if they belong to an online real estate agent directory like RealEstateAgent.com… scam artists are highly unlikely to have legitimate real estate transactions under their belt.
As far as the property, make sure you see it prior to agreeing… a night in a hotel is worth a lot less than a lifetime of regrets. Secondly, do not wire money, or send money directly into escrow accounts. You can always make exceptions for real estate agents you trust, but if someone is immediately asking you to wire or escrow a large sum of money, they are most likely as genuine as a Nigerian prince with a million dollars in the bank waiting for you.