Real Estate Scams to Avoid

Scam Detector quoted me in 10 Real Estate Scams That You Need To Avoid Today. It opens,

The real estate industry is a sector that’s extremely profitable if done right. If you think about it, a house is the most expensive item that a person buys over his/her lifetime. Big money, big opportunities. However, on the same token criminals prey on the weak and use creative ways to make a lot of money by scamming victims all over the world, whether buyers, sellers or realtors.

Amongst the most notorious fraudulent practices on the market, we have already exposed and shared information about real estate investment scams, home buying scams, residential real estate tips and the Real Estate Agent Scam.

This week we caught up with a few fraud prevention experts and real estate professionals. We invited them to share new tips and expose some prevalent scams they’re aware of, which are happening now.

Here are 10 real estate scams that you need to avoid today:

1. Hackers Stealing Your Down Payment: Mortgage Closing Date

“A hacker could fool you into thinking he’s your agent and trick you into sending him money, which you’ll never get back. It’s so bad the FTC even sent an alert warning consumers that real estate agents email accounts are getting hacked.”, says Robert Siciliano, fraud prevention expert with IDTheftSecurity.com.

He continues: “Let’s say your realtor’s name is Bill Baker. Bill Baker’s e-mail account gets hacked. The hacker observes Baker’s correspondences with his clients—including you. Ahhh, the hacker sees you have an upcoming closing. The hacker, posing as Bill Baker, sends you an e-mail, complete with  instructions on where to wire your closing funds. You follow these instructions. But there’s one last step: kissing your money goodbye, as it will disappear into an untraceable abyss overseas. This scam can also target your escrow agent.”

“It’s obvious that one way to prevent this is to arrange a home purchase  deal where there are zero closing costs”, says Siciliano. “The scam is prevalent, perhaps having occurred thousands of times. It was just a matter of time until scammers recognized the opportunity to target real estate agents and their clients.

The lax security defences of the real estate industry haven’t helped. Unlike the entire financial industry who have encrypted communications, the real estate industry is a hodgepodge of free e-mail accounts and unprotected communications.”

In addition, Robert points out: “Realtors, who are so often on the go and in a hurry, frequently use public Wi-Fi like at coffee houses. Anyone involved in a real estate transaction can be hacked, such as lawyers”.

When it comes to preventing this particular scam, here are a few points that Siciliano suggests:

– Eliminate e-mail as a correspondence conduit—at least as far as information on closings and other sensitive information.

– On the other hand, you may value having “everything in writing,” and e-mail provides a permanent record. In that case, use encrypted email or  some setup that requires additional login credentials to gain access to the  communication.

– For money-wiring instructions, request a phone call. And make this  request over the phone so that the hacker doesn’t try to pose as your Realtor over the phone.

– Any e-mailed money instructions should be confirmed by phone—with the Realtor and the bank to send the money to.

– Get verification of the transfer ASAP. If you suspect a scam, have the  receiving bank freeze any withdrawal attempt of the newly deposited  funds—if you’ve reached the bank in time, that is.

2. Real Estate Agents Assigning The Sales To Themselves

“I know a victim of a realtor who is scamming his buyers by taking advantage of sudden traumatic life events”, says Mariko Baerg from Bridgewell Group.

A buyer had purchased a house. Between the time it was a firm deal and the title transfer date he got in a severe car accident and could no longer work for the short term.

The realtor that was representing him had coerced the buyer into assigning the sale to the realtor himself for a discounted price because he fearfully convinced the buyer that he would have difficulties keeping his financing from the lender.

Assigning to yourself is a clear conflict of interest, the realtor did not try to market the assignment to anyone else, and the sale amount was $100,000 less than market value! He also forged the seller’s signature to convince the buyer that it was OK to assign the property.

The issue could be avoided by making sure you have a power of attorney lined up in the case that you have an accident, making your realtor show you comparables to confirm what market value is before transferring. Also, if you have a feeling there may be a conflict of interest always obtain legal counsel or receive a second opinion to determine what your options are.”, explains Berg.

3. Arc Fault Breaker Swap Out Scam

This next fraudulent practice is exposed by Jeff Miller, co-founder of AE Home Group: “Arc fault breaker swap outs are a common scam I’ve seen in the flipping industry. Modern building code requires that electrical boxes contain arc fault breakers as opposed to traditional breakers in order to further prevent electrical fires.

While safer, these arc fault breakers can add upwards of $800 to the cost of the renovation. Following the issuance of a use and occupancy permit, some flippers will return to the home and replace these expensive arc fault breakers with the cheaper traditional breakers, adding profit to their bottom line.”, says Miller.

4. Real Estate News: Bait and Switch Scheme

Another fraudulent real estate practice is the “bait and switch” scheme, explained here by Lucas Machado, President of House Heroes: “The scam occurs when a prospective buyer offers an “above market value” price to a home seller. The seller – blown away by the high offer – excitedly signs on the dotted line.

Sadly, the unscrupulous buyer has no intention to purchase the property at this price.

Once the seller signs the contract, the seller may only sell to that buyer for a specified time (weeks to even months) for the buyer’s purported due diligence. When that time ends, the fraudster asks to extend the contract a few weeks to work out closing details. Sounding reasonable, the seller agrees to the extension blinded by the high offer.”, warns Machado.

“There are two impacts on the seller. The seller keeps paying taxes, maintenance, utilities, insurance and develops an emotional commitment to sell.

Here’s what happens in the bait and switch: the buyer comes back to the seller with an excuse as to why this price no longer works, requests  a reduction to below market value, and threatens to cancel if their demand  is not met. Stressed by passage of time and on-going costs, the frustrated  seller agrees to the reduction.”

Machado offers a concrete example: “Our company had a scenario where we offered $185,000. The seller accepted a $220,000 offer. The “buyer” asked for extension after extension, for 12 months, and then the tired seller agreed to sale price $180,000. The victimized seller had on-going costs around $10,000 and lost approximately $20,000 by not accepting our offer a year ago.”

How can you avoid the bait and switch scheme?

a. Confirm proof of funds at time of executing the contract.

b. Do not grant unreasonable extensions or reductions.

c. Set expectations early on.

d. If extension or reduction is based on condition, request an inspector or general contractor report verifying claims.

5. Duplicated Listings

Leah Slaughter with OmniKey Realty warns about a scam constantly happening in the real estate business: the Duplicated Listings.

“We often see companies copy our legitimate rental listings and post on Craigslist for a much cheaper price. Unfortunately, many people fall for  these fake listings and wire or overnight money to the owners of these fake  listings and then cannot get access and eventually locate us and all we can  do is refer them to the police.”, says Slaughter.

“When searching for a rental, do your research and make sure you are working with a reputable company or a licensed agent/broker. If a landlord says they are not local and cannot give you access to the property, that is an immediate red flag.”

6. Real Estate Lawyers: Fake Profiles

David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School warns about a new type of scam: impersonating real estate lawyers. “In this case, the scammer takes control of the proceeds of a real estate closing by impersonating one of the parties to the closing and redirecting proceeds to an account controlled by him/her. The criminal might impersonate the seller’s lawyer and instruct that the proceeds from the sale be redirected to a new account.”, says Reiss.

“All such changes should be confirmed by a phone call (to a number that you know to be valid!) to confirm that they are from the real seller.”

Equifax and Your Mortgage

image by Mark Warner

HouseLoan.com quoted me in How Will The Equifax Data Breach Affect Your Ability To Get A Mortgage? It opens,

Like throwing a stone into a pond, the Equifax data breach has long-lasting repercussions. Already, because of what’s being considered one of the largest data breaches in recent history, 143 million consumers may be affected. Data compromised in the breach has the potential to impact any form of credit taken out in the U.S. — including mortgages, credit cards, and car loans.

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE EQUIFAX DATA BREACH?

The credit-reporting agency Equifax recently revealed that a data breach lasting from mid-May through July 2017 gave hackers access to their consumers’ names, Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates, and, for some, driver’s license numbers. The Federal Trade Commission confirms that credit card numbers were stolen from an estimated 209,000 people and documents with personally identifying information for roughly 182,000 others. Hackers also accessed personal data for customers in the UK and Canada. Equifax says their agency didn’t discover the breach until July 29, 2017, after most of the damage was done.

Anyone who may be affected by the breach is encouraged to act fast, Lisa Lindsay, executive director of the collaborative group Private Risk Management Association (PRMA), which aims to raise awareness and educate agents and brokers, says. “Consumers will need to evaluate what they want to do next with regards to protection and what risk management options they want to take. Such as purchasing cyber and fraud insurance. Those impacted by the breach could be at risk for additional attacks.”

HOW WILL THE DATA BREACH AFFECT GETTING A MORTGAGE?

Buying a house may be the biggest financial decision you make. The last thing that you need is a credit setback — or disaster. Megan Zavieh, a Georgia attorney-at-law, explains that the full ramifications of the data breach have yet to be known because we don’t know who accessed private data or what they may ultimately do with it. But, she says, it could impact homebuyers significantly.

“If someone uses personal data to open new credit lines or take other typical identity theft actions, homebuyers could be in for a terrible surprise when they complete their home loan applications. Often, credit report correction following identity theft is a long process. And it could well prevent loans from closing if borrowers had identities stolen after the Equifax breach,” Zavieh says.

ADDING TO THE POST-EQUIFAX FRENZY, MANY PEOPLE ARE SEEKING TO FREEZE THEIR CREDIT IN THE WAKE OF THE BREACH.

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Academic Program Director of CUBE, The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, says, “Those who are looking to refinance their mortgage or purchase a new home should be aware of how a credit freeze affects them. When they are ready to take the plunge and apply, they will need to contact the credit rating agencies where they had placed a freeze and lift the freeze temporarily.” Just as importantly, Reiss reminds buyers to put the freeze back in place after completing the mortgage process.

During the time when you’re buying a home and the freeze is lifted, you can place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit. Reiss explains that this should limit lenders from granting credit under your name without first verifying that you are the one who applied for the loan.

United States v. CFPB

photo by AgnosticPreachersKid

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

The Trump Administration has filed an amicus brief in PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The case is schedule for an en banc hearing in May. The filing is particularly newsworthy because the Trump Administration is siding with PHH, a mortgage lender, against the CFPB, a federal agency. The Trump Administration summarizes its position as follows:

In 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, giving the CFPB authority to enforce U.S. consumer-protection laws that had previously been administered by seven different government agencies, as well as new provisions added by Dodd-Frank itself. See 12 U.S.C. § 5581(b). The CFPB is headed by a single Director who is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a term of five years, id. § 5491(b), (c)(1), and who may be removed by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” id. § 5491(c)(3).

The panel in this case held that this “for cause” removal provision violates the constitutional separation of powers. Op. 9-10. The panel explained—and neither party disputes—that, as a general matter, the President has “Article II authority to supervise, direct, and remove at will subordinate [principal] officers in the Executive Branch” in order to exercise his vested power and duty to faithfully execute the laws. Op. 4. The panel recognized as well that Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 629 (1935), established an exception to that rule, holding that Congress may “forbid [the] removal except for cause” of members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—a holding that has been understood to cover members of other multi-member regulatory commissions that share certain features and functions with the FTC. Op. 4.

The principal constitutional question in this case is whether the exception to the President’s removal authority recognized in Humphrey’s Executor should be extended by this Court beyond multi-member regulatory commissions to an agency headed by a single Director. While we do not agree with all of the reasoning in the panel’s opinion, the United States agrees with the panel’s conclusion that single-headed agencies are meaningfully different from the type of multi-member regulatory commission addressed in Humphrey’s Executor.

The Supreme Court’s analysis in Humphrey’s Executor was premised on the nature of the FTC as a continuing deliberative body, composed of several members with staggered terms to maintain institutional expertise and promote a measure of stability that would not be immediately undermined by political vicissitudes. A single-headed agency, of course, lacks those critical structural attributes that have been thought to justify “independent” status for multi-member regulatory commissions. Moreover, because a single agency head is unchecked by the constraints of group decision-making among members appointed by different Presidents, there is a greater risk that an “independent” agency headed by a single person will engage in extreme departures from the President’s executive policy. And as the panel recognized, while multi-member regulatory commissions sharing the characteristics of the FTC discussed in Humphrey’s Executor have existed for over a century, limitations on the President’s authority to remove a single agency head are a recent development to which the Executive Branch has consistently objected.

We therefore urge the Court to decline to extend the exception recognized in Humphrey’s Executor in this case. (1-2)

This is of course an obscure argument about administrative law jurisprudence, but it also has serious real world consequences. I have previously argued that the panel reached the wrong result in this case and I think that the en banc Court will overturn it.

This amicus brief does not add too much to the reasoning in Judge Kavanaugh’s majority opinion in PHH v. CFPB, although it does flesh out one important argument that it made. The brief provides some support for the position that multi-member commissions are better suited to run independent agencies than single directors. But while it makes the case that single director agencies may not be the best choice for agency design, it does not make the case that it is an unconstitutional one.

 

Reiss on State Enforcement of Dodd Frank

Auto Finance News quoted me in The Mess at Condor Capital Signals Stiffer State Oversight. It opens,

Legal action brought by New York State last month against Condor Capital Corp., a Long Island subprime lender accused of bilking customers out of millions of dollars, could signal an increase in state prosecution under Dodd-Frank federal laws.

Legal experts say the case, even though it involves wildly egregious practices by Condor, could be the first of many by states against auto lenders, even if the lender’s nefarious actions are more modest than Condor’s.

In April, New York’s Department of Financial Services (www.dfs.ny.gov) obtained a temporary restraining order in federal court against Hauppauge, N.Y.-based subprime auto lender Condor Capital Corp. (www.condorcap.com) and owner Stephen Baron. The case is being handled in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The state’s complaint paints a picture of a company run with disregard for compliance. However, a former senior Condor employee told Auto Finance News that Condor’s practices might have been even worse than what was described in the state’s complaint. The former manager of Condor’s collection department told Auto Finance News that management thumbed its nose at the very notion of compliance.

Plain and simple, the federal law provides state regulators with a new tool according to Law Professor David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School.

“States have historically identified new forms of unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices before they get on the radar of national regulators, so states are likely to be quicker to take action than their federal counterparts,” Reiss said. “In all likelihood, the New York case, as well as a case from the attorney general in Illinois, are just the tip of a burgeoning enforcement iceberg.”

Reiss on Mortgage Scams

I was quoted in a story on HSH.com, 4 Ways to Prevent Mortgage-Relief Scams, that reads

Millions of American homeowners are still underwater, attempting either a refinance or a loan modification to help make their mortgages more affordable and their homes more valuable.

But far too many homeowners don’t properly investigate the supposed source for their mortgage relief and wind up scammed by fake mortgage-relief companies.

Mortgage-relief scams became a burgeoning trend in the aftermath of the Great Recession as massive home price declines wiped out home equity leaving millions of homeowners underwater — owing more on their mortgages than their properties are worth.

With so many homeowners facing financial distress, mortgage-relief scammers have stepped up their efforts to try and separate vulnerable homeowners from their money.

Definition

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “Mortgage relief scammers falsely claim that, for a fee (typically hundreds or thousands of dollars paid up-front), they will negotiate with consumers’ mortgage lenders or servicers to obtain a loan modification or other relief to avoid delinquency or foreclosure. Many of them pretend to be affiliated with the government or government housing assistance programs. Some falsely claim to be offering legal services or ‘audits’ of consumers’ loan paperwork to help them negotiate a resolution with their lenders. Unfortunately, these operations often fail to obtain the relief they promise, and they sometimes fail to take even minimal steps to help consumers.”

Jeremy Heck, a consumer law attorney in Columbus, Ohio says there are two major types of mortgage-relief scammers that advertise heavily via the Internet and mail.

“There are mortgage brokers that attempt to refinance a consumer’s residential real estate for what amounts to extraordinarily high fees,” he explains. “There are other companies that advertise to modify a consumer’s mortgage and claim they can achieve a much lower interest rate. Both of these types of companies advertise in a way that implies they are related to or are part of a governmental organization.”

Here are four tips to help prevent mortgage-relief scams:

Do not pay any money up front

Heck notes that some loan-modification companies charge high fees of between $2,500 and $5,000. “But at the end of the day, they provide absolutely no benefit,” he says. If you are talking to a mortgage-relief company that promises they can reduce your home loan, ask for testimonials and references from satisfied clients — and never put any money down until you see some results.

Don’t assume you are safe from foreclosure

If you’ve been receiving mortgage delinquency notices from your mortgage lender, you may be closer to foreclosure than you might think. At that point, it’s much better to work directly with your bank or lender than a mortgage-relief company. “Many times a consumer will believe they are protected from foreclosure having retained a loan modification company, but in reality, there is no protection and a foreclosure is usually imminent,” says Heck.

Ask a lot of questions

If you do decide to hire a mortgage-relief company, start asking questions, and don’t agree to anything until you get those questions answered.

“When trying to identify a scam, mortgage or otherwise, I always recommend sticking to the basics,” advises David Reiss, professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School. “Does the person have a call back number? Does the organization have a website? Will they put their promises in writing soon after meeting you? Will they show you the documents that they want you to sign soon after you agree to their terms? Very often these basic questions will review a scam for what it is.”

Watch for common “red flags”

Becky Walzak, senior partner of Looking Glass Group, a mortgage services firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla., says diligence is the key. She says to stay away from mortgage-relief companies that want all of your individual information such as social security number, credit card information, etc., over the phone, and who offer no written documentation of their strategies and track record.

“If they do offer references, call and ask specific questions such as when they helped, how they helped, how did you find out about them,” she says.

Being ripped off by a mortgage-relief scam when you’re fighting to save your home is a financial disaster that may take years to undo. Proceed cautiously with mortgage-relief companies, and don’t hire anyone without the proper due diligence. You may wish to hire a real estate attorney to help you review documents and contracts for you.