Last week four people were charged for running a real estate scam in Detroit. Victims believed they were purchasing vacant properties in the area at bargain prices. After victims sent payment they would receive false or forged deeds to a property. The false deeds were illegally filed with the Wayne County Register of Deeds. Victims later found out that the transactions were done without the legal property owner’s knowledge. Early numbers suggest that it happened to over 20 victims involving 19 different properties. Surprisingly, this isn’t the first scam involving real property that we’ve seen in Michigan over the last several years. Sadly, it probably won’t be the last. But there are a few things that property owners can do to help avoid these traps.
In past years, scammers have also mailed or phoned potential victims offering to retrieve important property records for a fee. The fees charged were anywhere from $50 and up. However, the Register of Deeds office will provide property owners copies of documents for a nominal fee. For example, most counties only charge $1-2 for a copy of a deed.
In light of these scams, many Michigan counties are making changes. Some counties now offer an alert system for real estate to help fight against property fraud. It’s designed to alert property owners of any filings or recordings under their name or their business’s name. So if a property owner signs up to receive alerts they will be notified, with a brief description, any time the county records a transaction connected to their name. Most alert systems are offered at little or no charge. Property or business owners should check with the Register of Deeds office in their county to learn more or register for alerts.
Property and mortgage fraud are two of the fastest growing crimes according to the FBI. There are some general tips that property owners can follow to help avoid property scams. Beware of someone asking you to pay large sums of money up-front for their services before you have any written documentation. Sometimes scammers will insist that you wire money up-front. They may even go as far as asking that the money be sent abroad because they are out of the country. It’s also important to visit the property in person. Often times you can also cross check a real estate listing at different websites if a property is actually for sale.
If you’re asked to sign documents that you don’t fully understand seek out an attorney or real estate professional who’s independent from the transaction. Consider using a professional to represent you. Buyers should also consider requiring title insurance or hiring a title company to perform a title search on a potential property. A title search should identify the legal owner and can reveal any liens attached to the real estate. Spending the money on title work could far outweigh losing thousands of dollars purchasing a property without ever gaining legal title. Most importantly, do your due diligence, and if you have questions don’t let them go unanswered.