Reports of Land-Selling Scams Continue in Pennsylvania

By Kim Shindle | June 28, 2024 | 3 min. read

Incidents involving people falsely claiming to own properties they want to sell are plaguing several areas of Pennsylvania.

The person posing as the owner contacts a real estate agent and asks them to list the property. In many recent cases around the country, the latest scam involves vacant properties. The scammer then tells the real estate agent that they only wish to be communicated with via text or email.

“We’ve notified our members of these incidents and urged them to be cautious when approached by someone who wants to sell vacant property but doesn’t reach out in person or who has very specific requirements on how to contact them,” said North Central Penn Board of Realtors® President Michelle Strange.

Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Brian Stewart has worked on these cases in the metro Detroit area and shared these tips for contacting law enforcement.

“If you believe that you have been approached by someone operating one of these scams, save every piece of documentation that you can so it be passed to law enforcement,” said Stewart. “Everything from email chats and text messages to fake documents can help identify similarities between cases,” Stewart said.

He added, “As with so many scams around the world, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.”

The National Association of Realtors® also noted that these types of scams are steadily increasing as scammers create elaborate schemes to dupe potential buyers, property owners and real estate professionals.

NAR notes certain red flags should raise concern for real estate agents when the potential client:

  • Wants to list the property for significantly below market value.
  • Has a strong preference or requirement for cash.
  • Does not want a “For Sale” sign in the yard.
  • Emphasizes an urgency to sell quickly.
  • Never communicates in person or on video, preferring to text or email.
  • Claims to be out of the state or country.
  • Will only use a remote notary and requests a remote closing.

“Remember that you’re not obligated to immediately start working with a potential client just because they show up on your doorstep or your inbox,” says PAR Chief Legal Officer Hank Lerner. “If something doesn’t feel right while you’re doing your background research, it may just be best to take a pass. If you discover fraud indicators, you can consider reporting it to local law enforcement, the state police and the FBI Internet Crime division.”

NAR also recommends some best practice tips:

  • Exercise due diligence to verify the purported seller is the actual property owner, for example:
    1. Ask for multiple forms of identification.
    2. Request to meet the seller face-to-face.
    3. Ask for proof of ownership of the property.
    4. Ask the potential client about the area around the vacant property to see if they are familiar with the area.
  • Conduct independent research to confirm the property owner, such as looking online for a recent photo or speaking to a neighbor.
  • Verify the seller’s email and phone number.
  • Make sure you or the title company select the remote notary at closing.
  • Ask the seller for a voided check and a disbursement authorization form; use a wire verification service to confirm the account information and ownership.

If you suspect that you are involved in a vacant lot scam, contact local law enforcement and file a complaint at IC3.gov. The Homeland Security Investigations Tipline is 877-4-HSI-TIP. Special Agent Brian Stewart can be reached at [email protected].

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