D.A. Warns of Real Estate Fraud

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

September 7, 2023

The County District Attorney is warning property owners about a scam that’s reportedly on the rise here — crooks illegally selling vacant property out from under the true owners.

D.A. Dan Dow said in a news release that SLO County, “is still experiencing an increase of incidents where persons suspected of being part of an organized crime group are impersonating the owners of undeveloped land and attempting to sell them.”

The imposters contact local real estate agents and agents outside SLO County and pull them unwittingly into the scam. There are a number of red flags that should be raised in the course of this scam. How the scheme works is:

• Criminals search public records to identify real estate that is free of mortgage or other liens and to identify the property owner. Properties often include vacant lots or rentals.

• Criminals posing as the property owner, contact a real estate agent to list the targeted property for sale and requests it being listed below the market value to generate immediate interest.

• The criminal, posing as the proper owner, requests preference for a cash buyer, and quickly accepts an offer.

• The criminal, posing as the property owner, refuses to sign closing documents in person, and requests a remote notary signing.

• The criminal or a co-conspirator impersonates the notary and provides falsified documents to the title company or closing attorney.

• The title company or closing attorney unwittingly transfers closing proceeds to the criminal.

• All communication is electronic, not in person.

The D.A. said his office is working hard to thwart these schemers. 

“The District Attorney’s Office is aggressively working with all local real estate associations, title companies and the Office of the County Recorder.”

The targets for the scam seem pretty narrow and should be easy to avoid. “If you own an undeveloped lot within San Luis Obispo County,” D.A. Dow said, “you are encouraged to routinely conduct an internet search to determine if your property is being listed for sale. Simply type in your property address, which will reveal several real estate marketing websites. Click on the on link and it will state whether or not the property is currently being marketed for sale.”

If you discover that your property has been fraudulently listed for sale or even sold, contact District Attorney Investigator Eric Vitale at (805) 781-5868.

The D.A. is also asking all real estate sales professionals to stay current with the alerts that are sent to your local associations and to ensure all absent sellers of vacant lots are being properly vetted.

How does someone usually discover the scam? “Often,” the news release said, “it’s when recording the transfer of documents with the relevant county. This scheme has particularly affected the elderly and foreign real estate property owners, as there are no means to automatically notify the legitimate owners.”

Who’s to blame if this happens to you? The D.A. said the real estate people who let it happen. “The burden of verification is on the real estate and title companies,” he said.

To protect yourself, and not become of victim of this white- collar crime, D.A. Dow said, “Conduct open-source research for the identity and a recent photo of the purported seller.

“Request an in-person or virtual meeting and to see government issued identification. 

“Be on alert when a seller accepts an offer below market value in exchange for receiving the payment in cash and/or closing quickly.

“And, use trusted title companies and attorneys for the exchange of closing documents and funds.”

A similar scam has been run for years wherein crooks list homes or apartments for rent on websites like Craig’s List and people seeking to rent them send payments for cleaning deposits, and first-and-last months rent, only to discover the house isn’t for rent at all or is being managed by a local property management company that isn’t the one who listed it.

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