'It was surprising.' Metro Detroit man caught up in real estate scam; here's how to protect yourself

'Within probably the last six to nine months, we've seen an uptick in real estate scams.'
Real estate scams
Posted at 12:04 PM, Apr 18, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-18 18:39:14-04

(WXYZ) — Real estate scams are on the rise, according to Homeland Security Investigations. They say thanks to the internet, such scams can now be conducted without meeting anyone in person, making it hard to detect a fraudulent sale.

HSI investigates such scams are under cybercrime. In the Detroit area alone in 2022, HSI recorded 20 cyber-related scams. In 2023, that number went up to 29.

One metro Detroit case caught a landowner, 72-year-old Marvin, completely off guard, and I talked to him about what happened.

An architect by profession, Marvin had plans to build a dream home for his wife in Farmington Hills.

"What kind of home did you have planned?" I asked.

"Well, never really got to the planning but it would have been something contemporary or reasonably contemporary, 3,000 or 4,000 square feet, something like that," he said.

He was okay with that plan not coming to fruition because of the pandemic, but the situation he found himself in last November is something he will never forget.

"I got back from a business trip and I found in the mail a package from the title company indicating that the property had been sold," he said.

"How shocking was it to see something like that? I asked.

"It was surprising. There were signatures with my name and my wife's name that weren't our signatures," he said. "So I called the title company. I said, 'you got a fraudulent sale and you got to do something about it.'"

VIDEO: Special Agent Brian Stewart talks about the red flags to watch out for:

VIDEO: Red flags to watch out for when it comes to real estate scams

Hearing about the crime, the title company also made a call.

Special Agent Brian Stewart has been with Homeland Security Investigations since the federal agency was formed in 2010.

"We see a lot of identity scams. Within probably the last six to nine months, we've seen an uptick in real estate scams," Stewart said.

"What was unique about this case?" I asked.

"The individual that impersonated Marvin communicated by email and text and help facilitate that the sale of that property digitally. But the uniqueness was we were able to get the property back to Marvin, and the buyers got their money back," he said.

Since the money didn't leave the title company's bank account, HSI was able to reverse the transaction immediately.

While the case is still under investigation, Stewart says in such scams, bad actors could operate from anywhere in the world. However, in this case, HSI tracked leads as far as the state of Georgia, but so far, there have been no arrests.

"It's not just the seller that loses their property, it's not the buyer that loses their money, it's buyer wanting to build on undeveloped land, contractors, employers, employees that are building on their, they are all victims," Stewart said.

"What can people do to better protect themselves?" I asked.

"Having search engine alerts, going to various real estate websites to find out about your property are just a few different ways. There are also third party vendors that will help you identify if your property has been stolen," Stewart said.

HSI considers Marvin's case the best-case scenario because law enforcement was contacted immediately.

"Is there anything you are doing differently now?" I asked Marvin.

"I'm watching the country records every six months. Again, it's my understanding why you always want to have title insurance, and title insurance will cover any fraudulent sale," he said.

You can contact the Detroit HSI office at 313-226-0500 if you have any problems or questions.