Criminals are getting more creative in how they target consumers trying to buy or rent a home or considering refinancing. Getting scammed can lead to major financial headaches for unsuspecting victims.
In 2017 alone, 9,645 victims reported real estate fraud, resulting in losses of more than $56.2 million, according to data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Many people are too embarrassed to file complaints, making it harder to catch scammers who repeatedly victimize unwitting homeowners and buyers, says Melinda Opperman, executive vice president of community outreach and industry relations with Credit.org — a nonprofit credit counseling agency and member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC.
Here are four common real estate and mortgage scams — and tips to avoid becoming a victim.
What it looks like: You get an email, phone call or text from someone purporting to be from the title or escrow company with instructions on where to wire your escrow funds. Fraudsters set up fake websites that appear similar to the title or lending company you’re working with, making it seem like the real deal. Scammers use spoofing tactics to make phone numbers, websites, and email addresses appear familiar, but one number or letter is off — an easy thing to miss at first glance, Opperman says. If the money is sent, scammers withdraw the funds from an offshore account, and victims have few options to retrieve it.
How to protect yourself: Never click on email or text links, or send money online, without verifying wire instructions with a live person on the phone from a number that you’ve called and verified from the original lending documents, Opperman says. Be wary of any email or text requesting a change to wiring instructions you already have, says Odeta Kushi, senior economist with First American Financial Corp. Always confirm the escrow account number before wiring money, and call your settlement agent to verify the transfer of the funds immediately after you’re done, she advises.
What it looks like: Loan flipping is when a predatory lender persuades a homeowner to refinance a mortgage repeatedly, often borrowing more money each time. The scammer charges high fees and points with each transaction, and homeowners get stuck with loan payments they can’t afford after being duped into borrowing most of their home’s equity. Seniors with memory impairment are especially vulnerable to these scams because they have significant home equity and may not realize they’re being taken advantage of, Opperman says.
How to protect yourself: If you’ve recently completed mortgage refinancing, it’s usually not in your best interest to do another transaction right away, Opperman says. If predatory lenders are actively seeking you out and you haven’t requested their help, that’s another warning sign. Work only with known banks or lenders, and question all fees and penalties presented to you. Elderly homeowners who have cognitive issues should involve a trusted relative or friend in key financial discussions, especially about tapping home equity. Review all documents closely.
What it looks like: People who get behind on their mortgage payments can become desperate to save their homes. That’s when scammers, who have access to public records of homes in pre-foreclosure, swoop in with offers of foreclosure relief to capitalize on homeowners’ vulnerability.
“Scammers will claim that they can help homeowners save their homes and reduce their mortgage payments for a large, upfront fee,” Opperman says, “but they often leave our clients in worse financial shape.”
Some fraudsters claim they’re affiliated with the government or government housing assistance programs, and swindle homeowners out of hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
How to protect yourself: The best way to avoid foreclosure is to work directly with your loan servicer to modify your existing loan, request forbearance, or make some other arrangement. Homeowners can first enlist the help of a HUD-accredited housing counselor to see what options they have, then include their counselor on a three-way call to their lender to find solutions.
“A scammer will tell you not to talk to your lender, and that’s a huge red flag,” Opperman says. “It’s hard to speak to your lender when you’re in imminent default or become delinquent because you’re afraid it might speed up [losing your home]. But you have to open the lines of communication with your lender.”
What it looks like: Scammers post property rental ads on Craigslist or social media pages to lure in unsuspecting renters, sometimes using photos from other listings. The scammers, who have no connection to the property or its owner, will ask for an upfront payment to let you see the property or hold it as a deposit. In reality, they’re just looking to get quick cash through nefarious means.
Rental scams are alarmingly common. An estimated 5.2 million U.S. renters say they have lost money from rental fraud, according to a recent survey from ApartmentList. Younger renters are the likeliest victims, with 9.1 percent of 18- to 29-year-old renters having lost money on such a scam, the survey revealed. And of those who did lose money to scammers, one in three lost more than $1,000.
How to protect yourself: Be suspicious of anyone who asks for a cash deposit upfront to see a property, says Nicole Durosko of Warburg Realty in New York City. Be sure you’re dealing with the real property owner before negotiating rental terms or seeing a property in person. You can search the local property appraiser’s website to find out who the current property owner is and look for contact information online.
"Avoid doing transactions via email or on the phone,” Durosko says. “It’s best to be face-to-face to confirm the property ownership, sign any required documentation, and [make a] payment.”
Use a check (never cash) to make a payment so you have an automatic receipt, Durosko advises. Finally, always insist on speaking with the property owner before signing a contract or making a payment if someone says they’re representing the owner. If someone claims to be a real estate agent, ask to see their license and take a picture of it so you can confirm the information online through your state’s division of real estate licensing, Durosko says.
Trust your gut if something doesn’t feel right or seems too good to be true. Work only with professional lenders associated with local and/or national trade associations, and ask for referrals from family and friends. If you’re an older homeowner (or a caregiver to someone who is), be on your guard when companies pressure you to tap your home equity.