Brick City Title, a full-service title insurance agency, is a loyal member of the Ocala, Florida, business community and dedicated to protecting the integrity of its customers’ transactions. This commitment served them well recently when a fraudulent transaction came across the desks of two of the agency’s title professionals. By working together and proactively communicating with other transaction stakeholders, the agency foiled the fraudster and received recognition through Alliant National’s crime watch program, which offers a $1,000 reward to agents who help prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing.
A suspicious package
When the package first arrived from the buyer, Brick City Title’s Gina Preston and Cherie Breitenbecker felt like it was a step in the right direction. For some time, their agency had been attempting to collect a deposit from a cash buyer of a residential property who claimed to be conducting the deal through a trust.
Any positive feelings quickly dissipated, however, once they opened the parcel. While the sales contract for the transaction was included, there was no form of currency. Instead, the buyer had tucked several postal stamps inside the package.
Naturally, receiving such a bizarre item immediately set off alarm bells for Preston and Breitenbecker, especially since Brick City Title had repeatedly clarified to the buyer about which forms of payment the agency could accept. “If we feel or suspect anything unusual, we dig into available resources to resolve any possible fraudulent dealings,” said Preston, reflecting upon the incident. The next step for both professionals was to get on the horn to the buyer’s agent and reiterate which forms of payment were permissible – including a bank wire or a cashier’s check. A three-way call between the agent, Brick City Title and the buyer followed shortly after.
Any title agent who has been in Preston’s and Breitenbecker’s shoes will likely be able to predict what happened next. The buyer was incensed about being called out for the package and that Brick City Title was asking for more information about the trust involved in executing the transaction. After some back and forth, the buyer clammed up and ended the call. Preston, Breitenbecker and Brick City Title then took stock of what happened. A consensus quickly emerged that the whole transaction was highly suspect. The experience of other parties in the transaction further supported this view, with both the agent and seller having their own misgivings about the buyer’s behavior and demeanor.
The final step taken was to send the transaction materials to Alliant National and to subsequently cancel the transaction – much to the relief of all involved. “The seller wasn’t surprised this buyer was fraudulent,” said Preston when discussing the aftermath, “and was glad that we uncovered what we found and cancelled the transaction so that [they] could move on.”
As with any fraudulent transaction, the experience of Brick City Title provides important takeaways. It showcases how agents must not only adhere to their companies’ policies and procedures but also follow their gut instincts. In this case, the buyer’s behavior alone was a clear red flag. “I had a couple of conversations with the buyer and the conversations were not pleasant,” Preston explained. “This person had a very demanding and insulting demeanor which put me on guard.” Brick City Title’s experience also highlights how successful anti-fraud efforts are bigger than the actions of a single party. Instead, having a strong working relationship with every transaction stakeholder is the key to safe and secure transactions.
Through interfacing with its partners in the transaction, Brick City Title gained additional information that backed up their original assessment. The transaction was indeed fraudulent, and the way it was prevented is an essential reminder of how stopping fraud requires all hands on-deck.
Learn more about Alliant National’s crime watch program.
Brianna Steel is a seasoned escrow officer, having worked for a variety of title companies throughout Florida. Her years of experience served her well recently when a suspicious transaction came across her desk at Coastal Title Insurance. By trusting her instincts, collaborating with her team, and following best practices, she was able to stop a fraudulent deal from going forward. She was recognized by Alliant National through its crime watch program, which incentivizes anti-fraud efforts by offering agents a $1,000 reward.
Numerous red flags
At first, the transaction in question appeared to be a normal purchase order. Initiated by someone claiming to be “a representative” of the property owner, Steel and the rest of the Coastal Title team got started on the file as soon as they received a request from the lender.
Yet according to Steel, it didn’t take long for red flags to emerge:
- Red flag 1: The contract was missing a signature. The representative promised both Steel and Coastal Title that it was coming, but excuses kept piling up, such as the seller being unavailable. While this was suspicious, Coastal Title continued working on the file to ensure that there were no delays, while repeatedly asking the representative to complete the paperwork.
- Red flag 2: Steel and Coastal Title were asked to “split” the proceeds with non-owners/non-lien holders.
- Red flag 3: Document signatures did not match other signatures available in the public records – a huge warning sign.
- Red flag 4: All communication was conducted through one person claiming to be “assisting” the parties involved in the order.
Further complicating matters was questionable behavior on the part of the transaction’s so-called “representative.” For one thing, the representative instructed Coastal Title to wire the transaction payment to several different accounts – including one belonging to the representative – which Steel responded that they couldn’t do.
All these suspicions were eventually confirmed when Steel made a call to the supposed seller. The property’s owner informed Coastal Title that the person who had been claiming to be her representative had been terminated and had no authority to speak for her on anything.
A strong team and the right policies
In reflecting on this experience, Steel had several insights. She noted that fraud can only be prevented through productive collaboration.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to talking with everyone in your office and sharing any concerns or even weird feelings about a file,” Steel said. “We are also very strict on following the rules and guidelines for preventing fraud.”
Steel listed some of Coastal Title’s fraud prevention policies:
- Never accept wire instructions via email.
- Never send unsecured wire instructions. No exceptions. If a client gets upset, explain that the policy exists for their protection.
- Call all clients and speak with them directly for introductions. This helps ensure communication with the correct person. Steel noted that a lot of fraud takes place via email and fraudsters try to not answer the phone.
- All employees must complete annual Continuing Education classes on fraud, even if they are not licensed.
- Inform colleagues when a phishing email is received. This helps all staff members avoid accidentally opening a malicious email.
- Show bogus emails to other employees so they can see things in real time. This has advantages over simply looking at fake emails in lender portals.
Another integral part of this collaboration involves Alliant National.
“Sometimes we are on autopilot and overlook the small red flags and warnings,” Steel noted, adding that Alliant National’s Crime Watch program “incentivizes people to take a closer look at their day-to-day tasks.”
Fighting Fraud: Challenging and Rewarding
As we’ve seen, beating fraudsters at their game is not easy, and it is often only possible through strong collaboration. Yet the time, effort and energy are worth it in the end. Thinking back on her experience, Steel noted that fraud isn’t always obvious.
“It’s surreal and infuriating […] but it’s also not as black and white as we would like to think.” Steel said. “Florida has an aging population and a lot of vacation homes. It is not uncommon for someone to be ‘helping’ a seller through the process. But it is also extremely rewarding to stop these transactions and to protect the real seller and future buyers.”
That’s one reason why Steel was eager to participate in this blog. By sharing information on best practices for protecting transactions, she can continue the collaboration far beyond the walls of Coastal Title. When asked if she had any final advice for title professionals involved in anti-fraud efforts, she shared:
- Trust your gut and talk with your team.
- If you have an intake person or processor complaining they can’t get a seller on the phone, listen to them.
- Look at the signatures on the contract and the last recorded document. If it was e-signed, make sure the email address on the verification is the same you are using.
- If you have a suspicious file, ask for someone else in your office to look at it and see if they notice the same inconsistencies.
- Don’t “call out” the person that you’re concerned about; instead, ask questions and play dumb. See if you can trip them up. If fraud is confirmed, share the information with your whole office and all your underwriters.
- At the end of the day, knowledge and awareness are key and will make all the difference.
If you want more information on how Alliant National incentivizes agents to detect and prevent fraud, check out our crime watch program.
At a time when our industry is under threat from ID fraud, First International Title’s swift and decisive action in uncovering and halting two vacant property scams is an important example of care and diligence.
Sharon Garrison and Jenny Rodgers, both of whom work in the Florida-based company’s Port St. Lucie office, were recently recognized and rewarded through Alliant National’s “crime watch” program. The program offers $1,000 to an agency employee who prevents a fraudulent transaction that would have been written on Alliant National.
Clear warning signs
Like many transactions involving ID fraud, the malicious activities encountered and thwarted by Garrison and Rodgers had clear warning signs.
The properties in question were two vacant lots located in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The first was originally set to close back in March of 2023, but according to Garrison, the title processor at First International in charge of this transaction, red flags quickly emerged when she compared the name on the property deed with that on the seller’s driver’s license and found that the first name was misspelled.
There were similar warning signs with the second property, which was being processed by Rodgers. She was immediately on her guard when her property’s listing agent informed her that the seller needed to close ASAP due to her son needing surgery. It was also highly suspect that the seller’s passport and driver’s license had the same photo.
Due diligence in action
After noticing these discrepancies, both processors began delving deeper into their respective transactions. Garrison attempted to call the seller and listing agent, but she received no answer even after leaving multiple voicemails.
Rodgers also conducted her due diligence. She first reached out to the title company who worked on the property previously, only to be informed they couldn’t close the file because they had suspected fraud.
Having taken these steps, each processor then sent out Property Owner Notification letters, which are intended to trigger a response from owners. Phone number and IP verifications were also performed, which cast further suspicion. Garrison’s seller, for example, showed an IP address located in Miami, despite having claimed to live in New Milford, New Jersey. Rodgers’ IP verification revealed a similar discrepancy, with an IP address for Miami turning up when the seller claimed to be in New York.
Other actions included a rigorous comparison of handwriting via mortgage signatures and other forms of identification, assessing passport photos and conducting passport number searches. Rodgers also called the fraudster directly. She asked them to provide their date of birth so she could compare it to her records. Unsurprisingly, the fraudster provided incorrect data, and when Rodgers asked them to repeat it, they hung up.
A responsibility not taken lightly
The experiences of Garrison and Rodgers illustrate several things about the title insurance and real estates fields, specifically the importance of fraud prevention efforts.
Stopping fraud, according to Rodgers, is key to obtaining “cost savings for all parties.” But like any worthwhile goal, their respective odysseys show that beating back fraudsters requires a great deal of time and effort, not to mention passion and acute attention to detail. What’s more, it necessitates title offices having strong anti-fraud processes in place, which allows agents to objectively verify important information and stop scam transactions from going forward.
“First International Title,” said Rodgers, “has implemented Property Owners Notification letters, which we mail or FedEx to the owner based on the address on the property tax bill. This letter is a fraud prevention tool. It indicates that we have received a real estate transaction request on the property and asks the owner to call us immediately to verify this transaction is correct and if we should proceed with the sale.”
Of course, availing yourself of these resources and putting in the necessary effort becomes much easier when there is an emotional payoff at the end of the journey. As Garrison explained, while she “felt bad for the other party that was really excited about the purchase,” it was gratifying to help them not “lose the property and money.” Rodgers echoed these sentiments: “I felt a great sense of satisfaction knowing that I was able to help the person going through this awful event. She was very grateful we were able to stop these crooks.”
Alliant National’s essential role
As a title underwriter, Alliant National seeks opportunities to support and incentivize its agents’ anti-fraud efforts. Garrison said working with Alliant National teaches those in the industry “what to look for and saves all involved from experiencing loss in terms of money and property.”
By forging strong partnerships, Alliant National and its agents can push back on real estate fraud. And when that happens, everyone wins. Learn more about Alliant National’s crime watch program
Foreclosure rescue scams were rampant during the Great Recession as homeowners found themselves underwater with their mortgages facing foreclosure. As economic conditions slow and home prices decline in some regions, now is the time to watch for properties being sold under the guise of a foreclosure rescue. Here is a quick overview of different types of foreclosure rescue scams and a few tips on what to do if you suspect your transaction may involve a foreclosure rescue.
Foreclosure rescue scams
Foreclosure rescue scams can be as simple as taking money from a distressed homeowner promising to negotiate an agreement with the servicer or lender and then failing to provide any meaningful assistance. Some schemes require the homeowner to make mortgage payments to the scammer, who promises to manage the payments on their behalf, but instead, takes the money and disappears.
The scams that title agents must watch out for are those that result in a transfer of title to a foreclosure rescue company or investor. Insuring the title in a foreclosure rescue scam transaction may result in a claim when the new owner attempts to evict the tenant – the original owner of the property – and gets sued by the tenant. Becoming a party to a lawsuit could lead to reputational damage for your agency and other potential harm.
Here are a few such scenarios.
Bait and switch: The homeowner is asked to sign documents purportedly to bring the mortgage current, but the owner unknowingly signs a deed transferring the ownership to the fraudster. The homeowner is told they can remain in the property while the details are being worked out with the mortgage company. When the ownership transfers, the property is sold to someone else by the fraudster, and the unsuspecting former owner is evicted by the new owner.
Rent-to-own: The homeowner signs a deed transferring ownership to the scammer under a rent-to-own agreement believing they will be able to buy the home back. The scammer promises the homeowner they will not record the deed, but the deed is recorded. As with the scenario above, the home is then sold to someone else without the knowledge of the original owner.
Equity skimming: The owner signs a deed to the scammer who promises to share a portion of the profit from the home sale. Instead, the scammer rents out the home, pockets the proceeds, fails to make mortgage payments, and may record a deed back to the original owner. When the home foreclosure is finalized, the owner is on the hook for the debt and has lost ownership of the home.
Some rescue services are legitimate, but even in those cases, the owner may not understand that they have lost ownership of their home.
Foreclosure scam Red Flags
Transactions involving foreclosure rescue scams often have similar details. Here are some Red Flags to keep in mind:
- A recently recorded deed from the owner to the investor
- An investor who brings an already executed deed to the title agent and asks the agent to record the deed
- An existing mortgage by the prior owner is in foreclosure
- The prior owner is still living in a property being sold by an investor or foreclosure rescue company (Scammers may call them “tenants” and ask that you do not disturb them as a condition of the sale).
Thankfully, if you spot one of more of these Red Flags, there are steps you can take to help determine whether the transaction is legitimate.
Trust but verify
A title search will show if there is a notice of foreclosure against the property. If this is the case, and the prior owner still resides at the property, a good first step may be to call or write that person to determine:
- Why they are still residing at the property
- If they understand they have transferred ownership of their home to the investor
- Whether they are aware that their home is now being sold to someone else.
Be wary of an investor attempting to steer you away from contacting the previous owner of the property or the lending company. It is best that you communicate directly with all parties, the prior owner and the lenders, letting them know about the impending transaction.
Open communication is also critical in the case of a simultaneous flip. The original owner may not be aware of the second sale for an increased amount. The new lender may include a requirement in the closing instructions that property flips be disclosed or that they are prohibited. Disclosures should be in writing. It is also best to communicate directly with the lender, and not just a mortgage broker.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind in the fight against foreclosure rescue fraudsters:
- Trust your instincts if you are feeling uneasy over a pending transaction or uncover unusual circumstances.
- Watch out for odd or unusual requests from the buyer, seller, or investor.
- As the neutral third party, it’s best to communicate openly with all parties to the transaction. Do not shy away from asking questions.
- Be wary of any party to the transaction requesting secrecy.
At Alliant National, we invite agents to share their stories and thoughts on how we can all help prevent fraudulent transactions. Please email us at: email@example.com.
In addition, agents who prevent a fraudulent transaction from being insured by Alliant National may qualify for a reward through Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program. Learn more at: https://alliantnational.com/title-claims/crime-watch-program/
There’s another victory to report as Alliant National partners with independent title agents in the ongoing fight against real estate fraud. Alliant National’s Crime program offers a $1,000 reward to Alliant National agents who help prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. The program has already recognized the prevention of $2 million in attempted fraud, and recently Heritage Title of Austin was honored for stopping a fraudulent transaction from going forward.
Meet Heritage Title of Austin
Heritage Title of Austin is a leading title agency operating in the Austin metropolitan area. For more than 30 years, they have been a dependable partner for aspiring property owners who are looking to secure their investments. Having long adhered to industry best practices and the highest possible standards, Heritage Title was naturally well-positioned to respond swiftly and efficiently when an instance of attempted fraud came across their collective desks.
Obvious red flags
“The order was placed through our website, which is very rare for our company,” said Dan Elkins, Senior VP, Plant Manager, Heritage Title Company of Austin, discussing how he initially became aware of the suspicious transaction. The transaction carried other red flags as well according to Elkins, who stated, “The contract was not a standard TREC form contract. The wording in the contract was a bit unusual in a couple of places, and there was no representation listed in the contract for either party.”
Once these red flags came into view, Elkins and the Heritage Title Company team began digging deeper. The contract in question only listed one woman as the seller, but an inspection of the tax rolls revealed that the woman and her husband were the owners of the property, as did the last recorded deed.
Therefore, the next step was to run the husband’s name, which unearthed that his will had been probated and explained why he had not signed the contract. The problem, according to Elkins, was that “the wife’s signature on their purchase money deed of trust also did not match the signature on the contract, which raised even more suspicion.”
Heritage Title then contacted the law firm that handled the husband’s probate to see if they could get contact information for the wife independent from the information listed in the contract. However, they were informed by the law firm that the wife had also passed away a few months earlier. This made it impossible for her signature on the contract to be authentic, as it was dated after the date of her death.
Wrapping things up
As Elkins and Heritage Title were conducting their due diligence and discovering the transaction’s clear fraudulence, Russell Gonzales, Assistant Vice President and SW Region Agency Representative at Alliant National Title Insurance Company, was on-site at Heritage Title. After Heritage Title reported the fraud to Gonzales, the company decided to alert other agencies and advise them to be on the lookout for similar scams. Gonzales then encouraged Heritage Title to apply for Alliant National’s crime watch award for having prevented a fraudulent transaction that could have proven to be costly for all involved.
Final thoughts from Heritage Title
In reflecting on the experience, Elkins noted that staying ahead of fraudsters requires a long-term outlook, a comprehensive approach and real investment. “We utilize physical access security at all our locations. We have network security installed on our networks that prevents unauthorized devices from connecting. We run very good software on all endpoints and servers to detect and contain any possible threats. We use top-of-the-line firewalls and mail filters,” he said, listing off a few of the security tools deployed by Heritage Title.
Elkins also made sure to emphasize that the human factor is equally important, and that without those two elements working together harmoniously, an agency can suffer negative financial consequences.
“The most important thing we do is train our personnel to always look for the red flags, whether it is in a phishing email or an impersonation attempt,” he said. “They are the last line of defense. You cannot spend too much on your defense and recovery plan because the monetary and reputational costs of taking even one hit can be enormous.”
Learn more, stop fraud and get rewarded
To learn more about how Alliant National incentivizes agents to fight and reduce fraud, visit us at alliantnational.com/title-claims/crime-watch-program/.