Fake land sellers target Helotes again

Bexar County property owners can sign up for fraud alerts

SAN ANTONIO – As if once wasn’t distressing enough, a San Antonio woman was doubly dismayed to find out yet another vacant lot she was considering buying was also a dirty deal.

Last month, Jozannah Quintanilla was on the verge of buying an acre-plus lot in Helotes. That was until the realtor who’d listed it online uncovered a charade. The “seller” who’d contacted the realtor was an imposter.

“I mean, to be halfway through a deal and know in two weeks, $200,000 could have been wired to the wrong person,” Quintanilla said. “Absolute shocking.”

But it was about to get more shocking.

Quintanilla found another lot in the same Helotes neighborhood where she and her husband hoped to build their dream home. It was listed for $125,000. Skeptical, she contacted the listing agent and asked a lot of questions.

It turns out it was also at the center of an attempted fraud. The actual owner was stunned to learn his property was up for sale — and not by him. He said he was planning to build on it soon.

Increasingly, scammers are targeting vacant lots. They are vulnerable targets because they often are not closely watched. The fraudsters impersonate the owners and contact realtors to list the property, all in hopes of a quick, cash transaction — all done remotely.

“With the rising use of technology and things like electronic signatures, it is possible we may never meet our buyer or seller clients. That’s just business in today’s world,” said Sara Briseno Gerrish, chairman of the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR).

She wants realtors to be aware of who they are dealing with. SABOR provides its members with an app called Forewarn.

“We can enter a phone number, and it runs it against public databases to (help you) see if you are actually talking to who you think you are talking to,” Briseno Gerrish said.

She also encourages agents to bring in the title company to help with verification.

As for what property owners can do to keep watch on their land assets, Bexar County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark encourages land owners and homeowners to sign up for Vanguard Property Alert.

“So, any time anybody files any kind of leasing, any kind of loan, anything to affect your property, you’ll get an alert by email,” Adame-Clark said.

The service is free and is available for signup on the Bexar County Clerk’s website.

The alert won’t necessarily stop a fraudulent sale. However, it will notify the rightful owner quickly to take corrective action.

Adame-Clark said fraud attempts are on the rise.

“You work hard for your home or your land where you plan to build your dream,” she said. “We want to help you keep it.”

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About the Author

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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