Roger Mildenhall, who had been living in Cape Town, South Africa, rushed home to Karrinyup, Australia after a neighbor alerted him to the sale, reports WA Today. The perplexed Mildenhall had owned the duplex outright after he bought it in 1989 for his now-deceased parents. Apparently, the house was put on the market after a series of e-mails from very convincing scammers, purporting to own the home, were sent to a real estate agent asking for the duplex to be sold due to financial hardship.
Even the most experienced scammers can be foiled from selling your home, however, if some simple precautions are put in place, say experts.
"It wasn't even my signature on the letter of acceptance, it was just like a five-year-old had written out my name in block letters. And yet the [real estate] agency didn't even turn a hair," Mildenhall told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "They just accepted it." Mildenhall said the agent believed one of the scammers when he said, "Don't call my home in Cape Town or send anything there" because he was traveling.
Apparently it was just too simple for the scammers to get Mildenhall's records for a mere $35 from the Real Estate Institute of Australia. The scammers, reportedly from Nigeria, obtained details of his mortgage and a copy of the title deed. They even accessed his first wife's death certificate to help authorize the sale.
Although real estate fraud also occurs in the United States, experts say it is very tough for this type of home sale fraud to occur here. Still there are precautions that both real estate agents and homeowners should take.
What Real Estate Agents Can Do
When listing a vacant home or investment property with an owner who is out of state, real estate agents should take these steps to avoid being scammed:
1. Ask for valid picture identification. Have the homeowners send you a photocopy of their driver's license or passport, says Armando Montelongo, former host of A&E's "Flip This House." "You need to check some form of legal identification."
2. Verify signatures. Compare the signature on the real estate contract to signatures on previously-recorded documents, such as on the mortgage, the warranty deed, the original sales contract, or other, earlier documents that required a notarized signature, says Jason Biro, author of "Saving Your American Dream: How to Secure a Safe Mortgage, Protect Your Home, and Improve Your Financial Future."
3. Check the warranty deed for alterations. "Make sure the warranty deed has not been altered," says Biro. "To do this, get a copy of from the original title company."
4. Select the professional contacts. Require that the owner-seller work with a cooperating attorney or title company that you select, and that is located in the city that the seller lives in.
5. Have a face-to-face meeting. "Most importantly, require that the seller attend the closing," says Biro. "The attorney or title company will also check identification and signatures to ensure that the seller is indeed the owner of the property."
What Homeowners Can Do
If you plan on leaving your home or an investment property vacant, take these extra steps to ensure that your home is safe:
1. Check "for sale" listings. When you are away for an extended period of time, check with sites that list homes for sale, such as AOL Real Estate, zillow.com or listingbook.com, which is one that updates activity daily. Make sure your home doesn't pop up for sale! You can also enlist a third-party service to monitor the multiple listing service for you, says Biro.
2. Stay friendly with neighbors. Ask neighbors or friends to keep an eye on the property at least once a week. Some cities even have programs in which the police department will do periodic drive-bys to check on your property.
3. Get back home. If you are truly selling a property while out-of-state, or even out of the country, get back home to close the deal. "If you're going through a transaction that big, it will be worth your time to get back to the States to sign any paperwork," says Montelongo. Work only with reputable agents who would expect as much.
4. If you've been victimized. If you have fallen victim to a scam, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, advises that National Association of Realtors. Also know that your title insurance could help protect you, says Montelongo. "The attorney or title company who handled the closing will put in a claim with the title insurance policy to get your money back. You file a claim like an insurance loss rather than proceed with a lawsuit." But in terms of actually getting possession of the property back if new owners are living in your home, that's a different issue. "Be prepared for a long, difficult process with a legal battle," he says.
Luckily, Mildenhall's home was purchased by the next-door neighbors, who had yet to move in. They have remained in their old house while everything is being sorted out.
For more tips on related topics, see these AOL Real Estate guides:
- Guide to Settlement and Escrow
- List Your Home 'For Sale by Owner' Without Getting Burned
- How to Find a New Home Online
- How to Stage an Empty Home
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