Photo licensed from 123RF.
Here’s how to protect yourself and clients from real estate fraud
As property values rise, real estate fraud is an increasingly pervasive concern in Arizona, with deceptive schemes posing significant risks to unsuspecting homeowners. From deed forgery to non-disclosure cases, fraudsters can exploit the vulnerable and less knowledgeable in the realms of real estate transactions.
Gary Smith, from Guidant Law Firm, recounts a case where an elderly client, who had lived in their home for decades and raised their family there, became a victim of a forgery scheme. A fraudster posing as the client managed to sell the property, unbeknownst to the homeowner. The property passed through multiple parties, with each thinking they were dealing with the true owner until the title company intervened, exposing the forgery. Smith emphasizes that anyone can fall prey to real estate fraud, regardless of economic status or the size of the property.
To provide a comprehensive view of the characteristics of real estate fraud and ways to protect against it, here’s what three experienced attorneys — Benjamin Gottlieb from Gottlieb Law, Casey Blais from Burch and Cracchiolo, and Smith — have to say.
Characteristics of Real Estate Fraud in Arizona
Real estate fraud takes various forms, some more subtle than others. Deed forgery and mortgage scams are well-known examples, but equally prevalent are non-disclosure cases, where sellers deliberately misrepresent or omit critical information about a property during a sale. As Gottlieb explains, unsuspecting buyers may find themselves dealing with a property plagued by undisclosed issues that lead to misrepresented income-producing potential.
“The buyer purchases the property relying on the representations from the sale documents, only to later learn of the undisclosed or misrepresented fact when the roof leaks 6 months later.”
Some unscrupulous individuals take advantage of the less informed or financially vulnerable, persuading them to sign over their property title without realizing the consequences. Non-married couples, partners, and friends who engage in real estate transactions without legal counsel can unknowingly put themselves at risk, making it difficult to "unwind" the transfer should the relationship dissolve.
Blais emphasizes that the underprivileged and those in desperate need of selling their homes are particularly susceptible to real estate fraud. Fraudsters prey on these vulnerable individuals, offering them inadequate compensation for their properties. Additionally, individuals with common names may be at higher risk of identity fraud, Smith warns. This highlights the need for anyone, regardless of economic status, to be vigilant in protecting their property rights.
To safeguard against real estate fraud, Arizonans can take proactive steps. Seeking legal counsel before signing any real estate documents, especially if the terms are unclear, is of greatest importance. Engaging reputable title companies and escrow services provides vital protections and minimizes the risk of falling victim to fraudulent schemes. Regularly checking public records ensures the property remains under rightful ownership and hasn't been illicitly sold.
Title insurance is a crucial investment, offering protection against forgery and fraud that may have occurred before purchasing the property. Monitoring services can further shield against post-purchase fraud attempts. Homeowners should pay attention to any abrupt changes, such as a sudden stop in receiving bills or unusual alterations in their credit reports.
Real estate fraud is a formidable challenge that demands collective action. By equipping themselves with knowledge and taking preventive measures, Arizonans can fortify their defenses against real estate fraud, ensuring their hard-earned investments remain secure for years to come.
In Maricopa County, homeowners now have the option to receive timely alerts whenever a document mentioning their name is recorded. To avail of this service, homeowners are required to create an account on the Maricopa County Recorder's Office website using a valid email address. Once registered, they can input personal or business names for tracking. Upon subscription to the system, they will receive email notifications every time any of the specified names appear in newly recorded documents, along with a convenient link to view the PDF of the filing.
The system is completely free for all users, and there are no restrictions on the number of names one can track. This allows homeowners to input various name variations or track multiple individuals at once.
Homeowners with common names need not worry about being inundated with constant notifications, as the system is designed to send a single email notification per day containing all newly recorded documents that triggered an alert.
Similar title alert systems are also available for free to residents of Pinal and Yavapai counties, functioning similarly to the one provided by Maricopa County.