Dirty deals: Imposters try to sell vacant land in Helotes they don’t own

Realtor discovers fraud before buyers lose $200,000

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio couple’s offer to buy a vacant lot for their dream home was accepted.

Trouble was, it wasn’t for sale. It was a scam, a fast-growing real estate fraud sweeping the country.

“This was it,” Jozannah Quintanilla said about about the brushy, corner property in a Helotes neighborhood. “It was over an acre, gorgeous area, level lot, for a great price.”

It was listed for $250,000. So, Quintanilla, a realtor herself, contacted the listing agent and put in a cash offer.

“It seemed to be the perfect situation,” said realtor Sarah Buhidar. “He wanted a cash offer that closed quickly.”

“He” was the seller who contacted Buhidar through Zillow. He asked her to market his land.

“He provided me all the correct information that a typical seller, a legitimate seller, would give you to list property,” Buhidar said.

All was good, until she found a conflicting phone number for the property owner - and called it.

“The voicemail voice that I heard was totally different than the phone number that I had been talking to,” Buhidar said.

Turns out, her client was an imposter.

“She texted me, ‘Urgent,’” Quintanilla said. She said, ‘I have some bad news. It’s a fraud.’ I told her, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

It’s no joke. The Secret Service is warning of a sharp increase in scams involving vacant land - easy targets.

“Who checks on their vacant land on a regular basis?” said Thomas Cronkright. His company, CertifID, works to prevent wire fraud.

Cronkright has seen several fraudulent deals involving vacant properties across the country, some of the victims losing as much as $500,000.

He said the ruse works like this:

The bad guys search public records to find vacant properties free of liens.

“They then would then impersonate the owner by creating credentials and email that looks like the name of the owner,” Cronkright said.

Next, they contact a listing agent, expressing preference for a quick sale and cash offer. They often list below market value to make it attractive.

At closing, Cronkright said, they give some reason that they can’t attend in person and request a mobile notary, whom they either give fake documents to or impersonate.

The funds are then wired to the scammer.

“It’s just unfathomable, just thinking that this could happen and nobody would know about it,” Buhidar said.

The scheme may not be found out for weeks when the deed is filed with the county, leading to a potential legal mess.

So, how can the imposter scam be prevented?

“I think it’s a shared responsibility,” Cronkright said. “Do we really know the customer that we are dealing with? Have we properly vetted the true owner before we go down a road where somebody is receiving a wire transfer or a check after closing?”

He advises real estate professionals to protect themselves and their clients from this latest scam by independently searching for the identity and a picture of the seller, requesting an in-person or virtual meeting to see proper identification, and never allowing the seller to arrange their own notary closing.

Fortunately, Buhidar was skeptical and diligent and stopped the sale. Quintanilla is grateful.

“To be halfway through a deal and know in two weeks, $200,000 could have been wired to the wrong person - absolutely shocking,” she said.

As for who is behind the land fraud, Cronkright said the root is likely overseas, “but there is a domestic component.”

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About the Authors

Marilyn Moritz is an award-winning journalist dedicated to digging up information that can make people’s lives a little bit better. As KSAT’S 12 On Your Side Consumer reporter, she focuses on exposing scams and dangerous products and helping people save money.

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