Fake property owners trying to sell land they don’t own

Alan Silvers had a bad feeling about a person selling their land. He did some investigating and learned later the person wasn't the real landowner.
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 1:18 PM MST
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CAMP VERDE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — Every piece of land has a story. This one reads more like a mystery that starts with an email. The owner of a four-acre property in Camp Verde wanted to sell and reached out to real estate agent Alan Silvers. “The person had all the right information,” Silvers told On Your Side. “But it didn’t feel right.”

The owner couldn’t meet in person, and he didn’t seem to know a lot about the property he wanted to sell. “The views and the mountainside, he couldn’t describe any of that,” Silvers recalled. “Didn’t know what these trees were.” Things got stranger. Silvers discovered the property had already been listed by another agent for way under market value. “I reached out to that agent and said, ‘hey, you’ve got an issue. We’ve both got an issue.’”

With a little investigative work, Silvers tracked down the real property owner. As it turns out, she had no plans to sell. “She was shocked!” Silvers said.

Real estate broker Doreen Letson says this type of real estate scam is becoming increasingly common. She encountered two serious attempts in just one week. “I had one deal that we actually made it all the way into escrow,” she said. The fake seller had gone as far as giving the listing agent a fake passport and calling the title agency to try to move along the process. The deal fell through when the title agency discovered the fraud. “I would say we were about a week from closing.” The legitimate owner of the property had no idea their property was in jeopardy.

Right after that deal fell through, someone else reached out to Letson, asking her to list a property in Sedona. That call was the start of another scheme, too. “He said, ‘will you research this?’ And I said, ‘oh yeah, you bet I will!’” Letson scared off the person when she requested a copy of his ID. “Part of our mission here is to get the word out to people who own vacant land, especially unincumbered vacant land, because that’s what these scammers are looking for,” Letson said. If there’s no loan on the property, it’s just one less hurdle for opportunists to clear.

The FBI first warned of so-called home stealing in 2008, and that has continued to evolve. According to the agency, these fake property owners typically assume the identity of the real property owner, create various fake IDs, and then transfer the house or property into their name. Then they flip the property to an unsuspecting buyer, take the cash and run. “It’s going on, and don’t think you’re not susceptible to it because you are,” Letson said. “One of the most important things you can do is check on that property. Set up a search for yourself in that area.” You’re looking for your own property to pop up on one of those real estate sites.

Now, there is a for sale sign at that four-acre property in Camp Verde. It’s the real deal this time. Still, Silvers can’t help but think about what could have happened if the fake seller actually made the sale. “[The property] would be gone by now. It would be gone,” he said. In a recent blog post, Allstate Identity Protection addressed the issue. “Because a forged deed is not legitimate, in most cases, the truth will eventually prevail. But proving the fraud to the proper authorities and recovering from any related identity theft can take time and resources,” the company wrote.