Avoiding property fraud 101
Written by Peter MithamWhile real estate is often considered a safe investment, it is also a fertile ground for fraudsters and con artists who want to take advantage of unsuspecting investors. Peter Mitham reports
Some deals are too good to be true, and quite often, unsuspecting investors will look for that quick and easy investment opportunity. While a fraudulent offer may look good on the surface, it offers you something that was never available in the first place or takes from you what is rightfully yours.
While the incidence of real estate fraud may increase in good times and in bad times, the real increase in frauds affecting investors, landlords and property managers has come with the increasing use of online technologies to buy and sell properties and secure tenants.
"On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog," runs the punch line to the cartoon of a canine keyboarder, and the same holds true of transactions. The dogs bark as loud as the stars, but caveat emptor requires an extra level of savvy and due diligence to distinguish between the two and hopefully avoid trouble.
Regulators in each province track mortgage- and title-related fraud, and Better Business Bureaus track other types, but mortgage-related fraud alone regularly tops $300 million a year in Canada. When frauds of all types relating to real estate are factored in, the tally is easily more than $500 million annually. It's a cost investors as a whole can ill afford. Here are some of the common types, and ways to recognize, avoid and recover from them.
Real estate frauds to beware of
1. Title fraud
The most common type of fraud for shelter is title fraud, in which someone fraudulently obtains title to a property for their own purposes. Awareness of this type of fraud is elevated by title insurance brokers, who have a vested interest in promoting awareness of this kind of real estate fraud. The insurers stand to lose money if a claim is made, so it's in their interest to sell title insurance as protection. Some provinces and most lenders accept title insurance in place of obtaining verification of clear title in a transaction, however, this can potentially defer resolution of issues until a problem becomes apparent.
Risks to clear title include a fraudster securing access to a property using fake identification and a forged signature. This has been a particular risk in the past where a common combination of first and last names is used to obtain title to properties without arousing suspicion. One notable case in B.C. saw a dozen properties accumulated by the fraudster before the scam was stopped.
Such properties are either resold for the proceeds, or used as security to tap a mortgage for the value of the property. Tips that such a fraud is occurring may include the failure of tax assessments and other notices associated with the property to arrive, or the discovery of a second mortgage on the property.
To reduce the risk of becoming the victim of such a scam, the Better Business Bureau recommends property owners take steps to avoid identity theft, including the secure storage of all personal information and the shredding of such documents when they're no longer needed.
2. Tenants on title
It's not just property owners that can be subject to fraud for shelter. Unscrupulous tenants can also con landlords, and vice versa. The Better Business Bureau recommends that landlords verify the identities of all prospective renters and to check properties regularly to protect themselves against "Trojan" tenants that can gain a landlord's confidence only to perpetrate a scam.
Similarly, tenants should ensure that their own personal information is not being mined to saddle them with payments on a property they only intended to rent.
The scam typically involves a real estate agent working in conjunction with a mortgage broker who is actively searching for individuals for use as straw buyers. The individuals, either knowingly or unknowingly are placed on title.
The mortgage broker provides the down payment through a subsidiary company and arranges for false documents that place the straw buyer on title. One search of one mortgage broker's files in British Columbia found just one legitimate title in 50. The rest were either victims of identity theft or tenants who didn't realize they were on title for the properties they were occupying.
3. Home equity scams
Cash-crunched property owners are particularly vulnerable to pitches that offer to reduce debt loads or tap property equity to consolidate debts. While there are legitimate means of tapping property equity, the Better Business Bureau warns investors against offers that invite owners to embellish their application by exaggerating income or down payment sources in order to secure a larger loan. This does the fraudster's dirty work for them, and leaves the unfortunate investor on the hook.
Common come-on lines include "We'll save your credit" or "We will get you a new mortgage with low monthly payments," but may come at the cost of title through a "quit claim deed" not to mention finances. While savvy real estate investors may steer clear of such risks, the Better Business Bureau notes that fraudsters have many sophisticated ways of luring novices into signing documentation that could harm them financially.
Contracts that truly reduce one's liabilities or restructure one's debts should include clauses formally releasing the property owner from past obligations and the assumption of new obligations, otherwise the owner might be on the hook for both.
4. Overpayment schemes
One scheme that has become common with the rise of online marketing has been overpayment. The real estate version of the scam sees a fraudster overpay for rights to a property, either as a purchaser or tenant. The commitment is then withdrawn on account of extenuating circumstances. The base deposit is then requested and the fraudulent investor seeks repayment of funds that were fraudulently delivered in the first place.
Typically, someone will call from outside of Canada and establish a personal relationship with the owner of the property. The property is needed within a short timeframe, and the alleged commitment is backed up by a significant deposit. A cheque arrives and is duly deposited, but the scheme takes advantage of the extended clearing period applied to overseas cheques. Shortly after the cheque arrives the party that sent the cheque contacts the property owner to say a family tragedy or some other dramatic change of circumstances has required a change of plans. The deposit, less the overpayment, is requested and the property owner is typically glad to have the overpayment as compensation for the loss.
The bank eventually notifies the property owner that the original cheque bounced, leaving the owner out of pocket.
The most common victim of overpayment schemes are landlords, who accept large cheques from parties overseas who back out of the lease and leave the landlord on the hook for the base sum.
5. Listing frauds
Another common scheme hitting landlords is the false listing, in which a property listing is posted on a popular (and usually free) listings service such as Craigslist or Kijiji. The ad attracts tenants who make a deposit on the rental listing, sometimes even at the property that's alleged to be for rent, but the property isn't actually available.
The scheme is recognizable – to prospective tenants, at least – because the fraudsters typically can't provide access to the properties. An excuse why tenants can't see the property is given, or (in a reverse twist to overpayment schemes) deposits are collected from tenants who plan to come to the city. The properties are also typically listed at well below market rents to attract tenants.
Since a real address is typically given, the Better Business Bureau advises landlords to scout listings and use Google to perform text searches to ensure that their properties and listings aren't being used by fraudsters.
Most landlords have good reason for not wanting certain activities in their properties – massage parlours, meth labs and marijuana grow ops, to name a few. They're subject to municipal bylaws in many areas and, in the case of drug production, cause significant damage to the properties themselves.
Organized criminals require space for their activities, however, and in many cases straw tenants will be put forward to secure access to suites -- in some cases, groups of suites – for criminal purposes. This is a growing problem for both landlords and the councils of condominium buildings that allow owners to rent units.
While monitoring power usage by tenants isn't possible for many apartment owners, the occurrence of excessive moisture is a tell-tale sign that something may be amiss. In addition, the regular inspection of properties – in some cases, with special drug-sniffing dogs – can help identify when a fraud has been perpetrated. Screening tenants and ensuring that tenant behaviour conforms to what was expressed during pre-leasing interviews can also help reduce the risk of misrepresentation and fraud for criminal purposes.
7. Home renos
One of the common types of real estate-related fraud Better Business Bureaus across Canada see is the home improvement fraud. Seniors and recent immigrants are the usual target of such scams, which offer services ranging from furnace inspections to paving.
"Once they get into the home, they claim that the person's furnace is leaking poisonous gases and should be replaced immediately."
A recent case in Vancouver saw someone allow these fraudulent contractors to take out a brand new furnace and replace it with an inferior model for above the cost of the new furnace. The furnace that's been removed may in turn be offered for resale.
"These unscrupulous contractors have convinced landlords to do some major repairs such as balconeys, roofs, plumbing. They offer a really low price and once accepted the landlord is left with damage to their building, many times, uncompleted work and the contractor has disappeared."
A corollary to this kind of fraud is hiring contractors that claim to be registered and have insurance, but in fact have falsified the documentation. If one of their workers is injured on their property and the contractor does not have provincial workers' compensation, the landlord may be on the hook for costs associated with the injuries.
Damages from inept work also falls to the landlord when contractors don't have insurance, which is typically required for all municipally registered and permitted projects.
Investors who find themselves at risk or victims of fraud have recourse, says Lynda Pasacreta, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau, Mainland British Columbia. Pasacreta is the former executive director of the B.C. Apartment Owners and Managers Association, and understands the risks property investors face from fraudsters.
"If it's too good to be true, it probably is," Pasacreta says, recommending that investors and property managers do their due diligence whenever they're presented with an offer.
She offers tips that apply to any transaction or business relationship, whether a lawyer, accountant or contractor.
"Get three quotes, check with the Better Business Bureau to ensure you are dealing with a reputable company, ask for referrals and ensure that contractors are carrying the proper licensing," she says. "Don't succumb to high pressure tactics."
Protecting oneself from identity theft is key. Those saddled with title to a property they haven't bought can challenge the title with the province's land titles office with the help of a real estate lawyer. Regular monitoring one's credit rating to ensure debts are in order, and no outstanding concerns exist is also important. Repairing a damaged credit rating includes informing ratings agencies and financial institutions of any irregularities and, in some cases, working with a credit counsellor to eliminate bad debts.
There are three key types of real estate fraud.
1. The first, fraud for shelter, includes securing title to a property through the use of inaccurate or false documents.
2. The second, fraud for profit, typically involves falsification of documents to inflate a property's value or otherwise secure a mortgage that's significantly above a property's actual worth. Alternatively, the property may be flipped through a straw buyer for a value higher than the original purchase price. The fraudster enjoys the apparent lift, while the conned parties end up with a property worth less than they thought.
3. A third type of fraud is the acquisition of a property by a purchaser or tenant for purposes other than its intended use – usually a marijuana grow op, meth lab, or other criminal activity. Alternatively, fraudsters may target a property for fraudulent activities such as specious home renovations and the like.