Tacoma — Imagine you’re surfing Zillow. You’re scrolling through the listings when you come to a dead stop.
Your own property is on the site, up for sale, but you never intended to sell.
Twice now a Lakebay land owner has found his Whiteman Road property listed on sites like Zillow and Redfin, said realtor Paige Schulte. He hasn’t ever put his land up for sale.
The Lakebay land owner is the victim of vacant-property fraud, a scam that’s hit the United States hard since 2022, said Thomas Cronkright, a fraud expert.
Using public records, fraudsters look for unused vacation homes, vacant land or any property that’s listed as unimproved.
They then pose as the owner and contact real estate companies, trying to sell the land or property, Cronkright said.
The criminals will go as far as creating fake IDs to prove their “reliability” to real estate agents, Schulte said.
In late July, Schulte was approached to sell land near the Fox Island Bridge on Warren Drive.
She knew right away something was off. The seller was hesitant to share identification. Yet, an ID was eventually sent and she continued.
“We sent a photographer out there,” Schulte said. “One of the neighbors said, ‘It’s really weird, they would never sell.’”
Schulte’s suspicions were confirmed when the actual owners called, asking about the photographer, saying that they hadn’t ever reached out to sell their land.
Schulte still isn’t sure how the criminal got the landowner’s ID. She’s been contacted by her friends in the real estate businesses in California, complaining about the same issue.
In a survey of almost 97 real estate and title companies in the United States, 56% said they’ve experienced the same scam within the last six months, according to a survey done in 2023.
“In [the first quarter of 2023] they just put the throttle down,” said Cronkright, who’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We have 18 confirmed cases in just west Michigan since March.”
Cronkright is the CEO of CertifID, a wire fraud recovery and prevention company. He’s also an attorney and part of the American Land Title Association.
While speaking on the subject with The News Tribune, Cronkright said he had seen two cases of property fraud in his area within the last day.
“It’s done by either text message or email. There’s no in-person communication. Everything is done online,” said Deanne M. Rymarowicz, an associate counsel at the National Association of Realtors.
After contacting the real estate agents, fraudsters will look for a quick cash sale. Many don’t show identification, refuse phone calls or won’t do in-person meetings, Schulte said.
The sharp increase in scams was announced in an advisory in January by the U.S. Secret Service.
Agents can curb the scams by requesting an in-person meeting, being alert for below-market offers and consistently using notaries, the Secret Service advisory said.
The increase in vacant-land fraud is in direct correlation with the current real estate market, Cronkright said. Real estate agents are desperately looking for business, whether it’s a $400,000 home or a $30,000 parcel of land.
“With inventory so low, real estate agents are interested in any type of activity they can get,” Cronkright said. “That may have a lowering-of-guard effect … they may be less susceptible to asking questions.”