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Beware: Internet, Text & Phone Scams Pose Hidden Threats

By: GBAR Counsel William G. Mullen, III, Esq.

            Scams via text messaging, over the phone, and on the internet seem to be increasing at a daily rate.  As September is REALTOR® Safety Awareness Month, caution should be taken to identify and better understand the types of ways you or your buyers and sellers, may be cheated.

Scams through advertising websites such as Craigslist continue in the market place despite efforts of law enforcement to warn and educate consumers.  One such scam that continues to resurface is an attempt to defraud individuals in the rental market.  In this particular scam, listing information on a property for sale, including photos, are gathered from a brokerage firm’s website and a fake ad is created advertising the property for rent, typically at a bargain rental.  The ad is accompanied by contact information which includes an email address and a phone number, which may be the agent’s or the owner’s phone number.

Email inquiries receive replies with an elaborate story concerning the “owner’s” necessity of renting very quickly.  Of course, if successful, the scammer then makes off with the deposit for the “rental.”  We advise that either you or your seller ADD A GOOGLE ALERT for the property address.   Anytime that address appears on the internet, you will receive an email notification.  Craigslist removes listings marked as fraud very quickly.  www.google.com/alerts

Another “popular” scam that brokers have encountered involves a scenario where an agent in the office is contacted by a lead who claims to be overseas and in the process of moving back to Massachusetts.   The buyer eventually (after some discussions) makes an offer that is accepted by the seller and all signatures are obtained via fax.  The buyer asks his attorney, who is also hired locally, to hold the funds in escrow while the transaction is pending.

The buyer’s attorney receives a check from the buyer drawn from a major bank for slightly more than the purchase price.   The so-called buyer comes up with a reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price, and asks the broker or attorney to wire back the difference after the check is deposited.  In some instances, not yet realizing the buyer as fraudulent, the broker or attorney complies with the request.  

One of our sister local REALTOR® associations has reported a texting scam in which many agents in an office have received the same message from the same person over the past several days.   The cell phone number is 464-5631.  The texts usually start with, "Hi. Is this Kim?”  When the agent has replied "no", the person then tries to chat up more information, such as trying to get the name, marital status, etc...  He claims his name is Trevor.    What could be harmless seems less so when you realize that the calls are all directed at female agents who have advertised their cell phone numbers in advertisements.  Please make a note of this, in case you are called, so that you can terminate the conversation immediately. 

            Finally, a local REALTOR® association in New Hampshire has alerted us that a person named Doug has made several calls to local female agents stating that he wants to buy a house and also open a hair salon and asks each woman if she would like a free hair cut.  The caller initially was calling from a Massachusetts phone number (508-816-1064), but he now appears to be calling from a private number.   When questioned, this individual makes excuses until he feels trapped and then hangs up.  He does not have an email, but just says he is in the process of setting one up.  This caller has alarmed several and we hope that you will take appropriate precautions.  We advise members who receive these types of calls to immediately contact the local police department.  The police need to be aware of these calls, and there needs to be a record of how often calls are being made and the type of statements being made. 

            Notably, real estate brokers and agents are not legally required to report any of these types of behavior to the authorities, but to help prevent someone else from getting scammed, we encouraged members to exercise caution and contact the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office at www.mass.gov/ago or the Federal Financial Fraud Task Force at www.stopfraud.gov.   There can often be indicators of fraud throughout a transaction. The following tips should be considered:

·         Do not to provide your bank account numbers or information to any untrustworthy source
·         Do not accept a check for more than your selling price, no matter how tempting the plea or convincing the story
·         Ask for a physical mailing address in addition to a telephone number and email address
·         To protect you and your clients, educate yourself about various fraud schemes and be on guard for any warning signs in a transaction
·         REALTORS® should be careful of putting too much information concerning their listings out on the internet. REALTORS® may wish to reconsider advertising on websites that do not provide security measures to weed out ads that are not identified with specific contact information
·         Finally, if an agent begins receiving inquiries concerning property for rent when the property is really listed for sale, the agent should immediately check Craigslist and other similar websites to ensure that their listing is not being misrepresented by a scammer. Agents should also advise owners to refer all inquiries concerning the property, whether for lease or sale, to their agent

            GBAR also reminds members to implement and regularly review and discuss safety procedures to exercise while showing property and meeting people for appointments.   You can find important safety tips, action plans, and other resources online in the Field Guide to REALTOR® Safety at REALTOR.org and as well as the website REALTORSafetyFirst.com