Whether your customer has owned property for years or just purchased property, you know these property owners are not immune from being a potential victim of real property fraud. With the use of technology and access to real property records, property owners are reporting a number of fraud cases. One type of fraud being reported involves foreign property owners. The typical target owns an unencumbered, vacant parcel of land and has an out-of-country mailing address listed in the county records. Fraudsters are most likely finding these properties by searching the county records to identify a potential victim.
Here’s one recent fraud scenario: Months after a sales transaction closed, the title company was advised by the insured of a potential fraudulent sale of a vacant parcel of land which was owned by a foreign investor. An investigation revealed that the sale of the property was fraudulent. The conveyance deed was allegedly notarized by a notary employed at the U.S. Consulate General office in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Consulate General’s office confirmed that there was no notary by that name employed at their office. The owner of the property, who resided in Columbia, confirmed that the property was not for sale.
A few Red Flags we have identified while administering these types of claims include:
- Vacant land sales;
- Vacant parcels that have been owned by the same owner for several years;
- Non-local owners;
- Low sales price; or
- Real estate agent is contacted by a buyer/seller in a rush to buy/sell the property.
Some tips to help a title company avoid this type of fraud:
- Be extremely careful with emails from out-of-country sellers rushing to close the transaction;
- If you receive a rush sale request from the purported seller or a real estate agent, DO NOT rush; rather take your time and give the file your full attention;
- Ask the real estate agent how or from whom they received the sale listing;
- Contact the prospect seller via Zoom, Skype or another video-enabled meeting platform;
- Ask the seller questions about the property such as when and how they came to acquire it, and what their plans were for the vacant parcel to see if the seller knows the property’s history;
- Request to see the identification that will be used at the closing transaction;
- Check the seller’s foreign identification. Look at the picture (sometimes you can see that a picture was placed on top of another picture), and check for inconsistencies with the font and signs of tampering. Whenever possible, compare to a standard version of the identification, whether using a guidebook, an online resource, or even Googling samples of identification for comparison;
- Check the property appraiser’s website for the current owner’s address, and consider forwarding a letter to that address;
- Check the tax collector’s website, and review the history of tax payments to see if you can determine who the payor has been, and their mailing address;
- Research the notary and contact the Embassy or Consulate to confirm the notary works there. We have learned that many of the foreign officers are aware of this type of fraud; and
- If your gut tells you something is wrong, please follow your gut. That feeling is usually right!
For our agents, remember that you can be rewarded for your efforts through Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program if you prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. Program details and the nomination form are on our website at alliantnational.com/title-claims/crime-watch-program/.
This blog contains general information only, not intended to be relied upon as, nor a substitute for, specific professional advice. We accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any purpose acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material on this blog.
Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program creates a formidable partnership to fight fraud.
There is no other way to say it: Real estate fraud is a major problem in the United States. According to the National Association of Realtors, nearly 14,000 people were victimized by real estate fraud in 2020 alone.[i] Combatting this growing threat requires strong partnerships, and Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program seeks to foster such partnerships by rewarding Alliant National agents who prevent fraudulent closings.
The program has produced real results over the years. In this blog, we will look at a recent detection and prevention of a fraudulent transaction by Siesta Title and Escrow Services LLC.
Alliant National Agents on Crime Watch
Alliant National offers a $1,000 reward to Alliant National agents who help prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. The company created the program to help raise agents’ awareness of potential fraudulent transactions and to reduce the overall cost of claims.
To qualify for consideration to receive a reward under the Crime Watch Program, an agent must satisfy a few requirements:
- The reporting agent must be an active Alliant National agent in good standing.
- The agents must prevent a fraudulent transaction or forgery involving a real estate transaction that was intended to be insured by Alliant National.
- In the case of forgery, the intended forgery must include the falsification of a signature with an intent to defraud.
- The Crime Watch Nomination form must be executed by an owner/manager.
- All available and relevant documentation – including evidence showing that the transaction was to have been insured by Alliant National – must be submitted to the appropriate Alliant National State or Regional Agency Manager along with the Award Nomination form.
The submission form and all relevant documentation will be reviewed by the company and a final determination will be made.
Siesta Title Spots Suspicious Activity
Siesta Title and Escrow Services LLC, a title agency headquartered in Port Charlotte, Fla., recently submitted a suspected fraud to Alliant National. Their story underscores the importance of Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program and how collaboration between agents and underwriters can help stop fraud.
The property in question was a vacant lot in Port Charlotte that had been owned by a Canadian man for 30 years. Quite quickly there were communication problems and other warning signs that something about the transaction was amiss.
“The seller was hard to reach from the beginning, did not respond to emails and only called once, but it was a horrible connection,” said Amanda Pertuch, the submitting agent.
Some of the other indicators that tipped Amanda off to the questionable nature of the transaction included:
- The purported seller having suspicious-looking ID
- The purported seller’s wiring instructions going to a foreign bank
- The purported seller’s letterhead having an address associated with a vacant lot
- The purported seller not having a bank account in the same country where he holds citizenship
- The notary on the closing documents was already on Siesta’s fraud alert list
- The purported seller not showing up in any Google searches
Following verification by Amanda’s manager and Alliant National, the suspected fraud was confirmed, and the transaction was cancelled. The proposed liability amount for the transaction was $160,000.
“I’m glad and relieved that we were able to catch this fraud attempt,” said Pertuch. “Anti-fraud programs are important for our industry to keep claim costs under control. I’m happy Alliant National and Siesta Title were able to take care of this quickly and efficiently.”
If you suspect fraud, notify your manager immediately. Your manager may investigate further and will determine next steps. Under no circumstance should suspicions be communicated to outside parties without prior approval from your manager.
Fraudsters will often attempt to speed the transaction along; do not let them succeed. If you suspect fraud or forgery, conduct a full investigation before proceeding to close the transaction and issuing the policy.
Managers should contact Alliant National underwriting or claims for further assistance.
Working Together, We Can Limit Fraud
Alliant National is committed to limiting fraud and lowering claim costs. However, we can’t do it alone. Just as our ability to deliver high-quality title insurance hinges on our partnerships with agents, so too does our capability to detect and thwart fraud. And as Siesta Title and Escrow Services’ work shows, when those partnerships work, real results that reward agents and protect transactions are indeed possible.
[i] Wire Fraud (nar.realtor)
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) 2021 report released in March highlighted an “unprecedented increase in cyberattacks and malicious cyber activity” resulting in a dramatic escalation in financial losses.
In 2021, IC3 received 847,376 complaints from consumers and businesses – a 7% increase from 2020 – with potential losses exceeding $6.9 billion. Most significantly for the title insurance industry, business email compromise (BEC) schemes resulted in losses of nearly $2.4 billion, up 33% from 2020.
In its report, the IC3 identified Russia as a hot spot for cyberattack actors in 2021. In recent weeks, the risk of those cyberattacks has grown exponentially in retaliation for the many sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
On March 21, President Biden released a statement highlighting the imminent threat to our nation’s cybersecurity. That same day, Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger said in a press briefing, “We’ve previously warned about the potential for Russia to conduct cyberattacks against the United States, including as a response to the unprecedented economic costs that the U.S. and allies and partners imposed in response to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine. Today, we are reiterating those warnings, and we’re doing so based on evolving threat intelligence that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks on critical infrastructure in the United States.”
These imminent threats are a reminder of how important it is to take the necessary steps to protect your agency and your customers.
Alliant National has just released a white paper titled Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips to provide our agents with information, risk factors and protocols that will help you partner with consumers, real estate agents and lenders to defend against the fraudsters.
In addition, the Biden Administration released a Fact Sheet, urging companies to take immediate steps to protect their systems, including:
- Mandate the use of multi-factor authentication on your systems to make it harder for attackers to get onto your system
- Deploy modern security tools on your computers and devices to continuously look for and mitigate threats
- Check with your cybersecurity professionals to make sure that your systems are patched and protected against all known vulnerabilities
- Change passwords across your networks so that previously stolen credentials are useless to malicious actors
- Back up your data and ensure you have offline backups beyond the reach of malicious actors
- Run exercises and drill your emergency plans so that you are prepared to respond quickly to minimize the impact of any attack
- Encrypt your data so it cannot be used if it is stolen
- Educate your employees on common tactics that attackers will use over email or through websites
- Encourage employees to report if their computers or phones have shown unusual behavior, such as unusual crashes or operating very slowly
- Engage proactively with your local FBI field office or CISA Regional Office to establish relationships in advance of any cyber incidents
The Biden Administration also encourages IT and security leaders at all companies to visit the websites of CISA and the FBI to access technical information and other useful resources. These heightened threats represent a clear and present danger for all of us. We encourage all of our agents to download the Alliant National Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering today and share this information with your staff and customers.