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Attempts to commit deed fraud are becoming more pervasive in Arizona.  More specifically, there has been a recent surge in fraudsters impersonating owners of vacant land and contacting real estate licensees to put the land on the market to sell.  Typically, in this scenario, fraudsters are well versed in their knowledge of the property as the internet and public records provide a fair amount of detail.  And, because online transactions are not abnormal these days, an agent may not think twice about being contacted by a purported seller who does not live in the local area.  However, because real estate licensees are the first line of defense to this type of fraud, it’s helpful for agents to be aware of this scheme so that they may adopt preventative practices.

Red Flags:

  • Unencumbered, vacant land; 
  • Vacant parcels owned by the same owner for several years;  
  • Non-local owners;  
  • Low sales price;
  • The seller claims to be out of the country for an urgent but believable reason (usually something dealing with family);
  • The seller needs to sell fast – story may pull at the heart strings;
  • The seller cannot meet the agent in person or connect with the agent via video conferencing;
  • The seller will only communicate via email and will not provide a mailing address; and
  • The seller uses a power of attorney, or has documents purportedly acknowledged in the state or country they live in.

Preventative practices:

  1. Be extremely careful with emails from out-of-country sellers rushing to close the transaction; 
  2. Ask the seller who referred them or how they found you;  
  3. Ask to speak with the seller via Zoom, Skype or another video conferencing platform;
  4. Ask the seller questions about the property such as when and how they came to acquire it, and what their plans were for the vacant parcel to see if the seller knows the property’s history;  
  5. Request a copy of the seller’s identification;   
  6. Check the county assessor’s website for the current owner’s address, and consider performing an internet search to compare information provided to you by the purported owner against what you discover online;
  7. Check the treasurer’s website, and review the history of tax payments to see if you can determine who the payor has been, and their mailing address;  
  8. Perform a notary search and contact the Embassy or Consulate, if applicable, to confirm whether the notary works there; and
  9. Listen to your gut.

If you see suspicious activity, contact your local authorities and the Arizona Attorney General’s office. Also consider filing a complaint with the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Federal Trade Commission to report fraud.

About the Author

Nikki Salgat

Nikki J. Salgat, Esq. is General Counsel to the Arizona REALTORS®. This article is of a general nature and reflects only the opinion of the author at the time it was drafted. It is not intended as definitive legal advice, and you should not act upon it without seeking independent legal counsel.