(WSPA) – Imagine learning that someone has been trying to sell your property right from underneath you.
That is what happened to an Upstate man who is one of many victims in a scam that is hitting the real estate industry hard.
In this 7NEWS Consumer Exclusive, we looked into why this scam is so difficult for landowners to prevent, and what agents, attorneys and buyers need to do to avoid land-for-sale scams.
Alarming phone call
Nestled in a cove off Lake Keowee is a piece of secluded property that owner Bill Raeford hopes to build on someday.
So when Raeford got a disturbing call he was alarmed.
“Out of the blue she calls me and says I want to verify your closing date on this property and it’s literally in 10 days. And I’m like mam there’s not a contract on this property. And she said oh my God I knew something wasn’t right,” Raeford said.
It was the office of Real Estate Agent Marie Graziano with Open House Realty that had made that call.
Graziano, who had been hired to sell the land, told 7NEWS she had had her suspicions.
The sellers claimed to be from out of state, living in Louisiana, and they wanted a quick sale, fast enough to merit reducing the assessed $300,000 value to almost half that, $170,000.
Sellers had real license info, notary
However, she said all the personal information the sellers gave passed a background check.
“It all came up clean that this gentleman was the real owner. The scammer had stolen all of their accurate correct information,” Graziano explained. “They had their Social Security number, and they had all the info for their driver’s license, too.”
That is news that did not sit well with Raeford.
“Oh, that’s violating, absolutely violating, like out in the world naked because that’s my license,” Raeford said.
In fact, just about the only thing that was not accurate on the licenses were the photos.
7NEWS used a Google image search, by dropping the cropped images into the Google homepage search, to trace them back to a passport studio out of England.
Still closing Attorney Danny Hoy said the sellers passed the title search and even had a notary ready to sign, which is required since they would not be at closing.
Scam prevention and red flags
He said the best way to prevent such a sophisticated scam is to educate others and he explained what the scammers were looking for, essentially vacant land that is paid off.
“If you own vacant land and it’s worth a significant amount of money, six figures or so, and you don’t see it very often you should probably check the internet and make sure your property is not listed for sale,” according to Hoy.
Of course, that is an easy thing for a property owner to miss.
So, title insurance companies are sounding the alarms, tasking industry professionals to spot a combination of red flags like:
- remote sellers who won’t be at closing
- no mortgage or lien on the property
- pressure to sell fast
The truth comes out
In the end, it was a key question on a closing attorney document that saved the day.
“One of the questions on it says is there an HOA and everyone local knows The Cliffs. So, when he said “no,” I sent that to the attorney’s office and I said you know that this guy this proves he doesn’t own it, we must find the real Mr. Raeford,” Graziano said.
That’s when they checked the public index tax records to find Raeford’s real address, not Louisiana, but Moore, Spartanburg County.
“I had a false sense of security the fact that you pay something off and have deed or a title that it’s yours to keep,” Raeford said, wondering what would have happened if the property had made it to closing.
What if the scam worked?
7NEWS learned, if the scam had gone through it could leave the rightful owner and would-be buyer to fight it out, but in Raeford’s case the closing attorney would have voided the deed so Raeford would remain the owner.
The buyer, who declined to comment, would have been out money, which is why, though not required, title insurance is crucial, since that protection would have likely covered that claim and eventually reimbursed the buyer.
What agents and closing attornies need to do differently
Now, both Graziano and Hoy use those tax records to verify ownership, and they urge everyone else in the industry to do the same.
“Six this year have reached out to me that were trying to steal land titles and I have found those quicker,” Graziano explained.
Meanwhile, Raeford has purchased identity protection but knows even that won’t stop scammers from listing his property.
“It’s what you see on television, and you think it happens to somebody else,” Raeford, still shocked, said.
“Happened to us, yeah, within 10 days!”