RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Real estate experts are warning land owners — and potential buyers — about a rise in fake listings after receiving new complaints from real estate licensees.
In January, Scott Mayausky, the Stafford County Commissioner of Revenue, helped a man who was concerned about seeing his vacant land posted for sale on Redfin. The problem was that he never listed it.
“He was very distraught. He said he didn’t sleep the night before,” Mayausky said. “He came into the office to check land records to make sure that we still have him listed as the owner.”
Mayausky directed him to the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office where detectives are currently investigating cases of land fraud sales.
“Cases like this are under investigation and will be looked at from every possible angle,” the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office told 8News in a statement. “For those currently looking to purchase or rent, it is important to take preventive measures to ensure cases like these do not continue. Those who are a victim are urged to contact their local law enforcement to report the fraud.”
The Virginia Realtors Association said criminals are contacting real estate agents to list properties they don’t own. The properties they want to sell typically don’t have a mortgage, like vacant lots. The criminals are selling this land for below market value and for cash. They usually want to sell it quickly before the true owner catches on.
Laura Murray, general counsel for the Virginia Realtors Association, said they are seeing a rise in these fake buyer and seller scams because only buying and selling is now prioritized, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of transactions have been conducted remotely because of people’s concerns for their health,” Murray said. “They’ve already moved somewhere else so they’re not local anymore.”
“In this virtual world, it’s easy for people with ill intentions to get away with things that they probably couldn’t have before,” Mayausky added.
Some red flags to look out for include someone who wants to do the entire transaction remotely and if they can only provide a blurry or unclear picture of their photo ID.
“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Murray said.
Virginia Realtors said to protect yourself from scammers you can look up land records, insist on meeting with sellers in person or on video call and to get a settlement company or attorney involved in the transaction.
The Virginia Department of Professional Occupational Regulation (DPOR) is also actively investigating cases of fraudulent sellers who are posing as property owners and trying to sell land they don’t own. The department sent out a warning to real estate licensees last week after a number of complaints in neighboring states like North and South Carolina.
Kerri O’Brien, communications manager for the department, said reports are coming in from around the state including Williamsburg, Northern Virginia, Stafford County and Southwest Virginia.
“We did field a number of calls from brokers who said they believe they were approached by a fake seller and then as some of these red flags went up, they cut ties — fortunately — before any money was transferred,” she said.
O’Brien said that DPOR investigators would review a complaint and check to see if the licensee followed regulations. If it appeared to be criminal fraud, the team would refer the case to the respective law enforcement agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“We’re reminding our licensees that under the code of Virginia they’re required to get a written brokerage agreement between the client (the seller) and the licensee (the broker),” O’Brien said. “We also urge them to make sure they check the name of the person that they’re talking to matches the name of the person on the land deed and make sure they get the photo ID.”
Mayausky said he is already more cautious after taking these complaints in his office. While the man he encountered was a first-time experience, it taught him a valuable lesson.
“It definitely made me rethink how I need to take more precautions with my own property,” he said. “I went out and bought title insurance. That will protect you in a case like this.”