The process of selecting vacant land to scam unsuspecting victims typically begins with a thorough search of public records for land without owners in residence and free from mortgages. However, being alert to certain warning signs can help real estate professionals safeguard against such scams.

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The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has issued a cautionary note about the continuous rise in financial losses attributed to real estate and rental scams, which exceeded $396 million in the previous year. Scammers are devising increasingly sophisticated plans to deceive prospective buyers, property owners, and real estate experts.

Vacant land has recently become a prime target for these fraudsters, according to Charlie Lee, Senior Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs at the National Association of Realtors®, as mentioned in the latest “Window to the Law” video.

Thinking like a criminal, these scammers meticulously examine public records to identify unoccupied land parcels and properties unburdened by mortgages or liens. Subsequently, they impersonate the property owner and approach a real estate agent to have the property listed.

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“In the eyes of the agent, the deal may seem too good to be true,” Lee explains. “The seller is ready to part with the property for less than its market value, generating substantial interest, and they willingly accept offers, with a preference for cash transactions.”

Real estate attorney Victor Petrescu has recently raised concerns about the surge in fraudsters, known as “title pirates,” who employ fake or forged deeds and other documents to transfer property titles. Often, these schemes remain undetected until after funds have been wired to the scammers in the midst of a fraudulent sale.

“These scams have left buyers defrauded of substantial sums of money, while property owners, brokers, and agents find themselves having to untangle the mess,” Lee warns. is offering a $100,000 giveaway to help with your dream home purchase

Lee identifies several red flags that real estate professionals should be on the lookout for:

  1. The “seller” insists on selling a vacant property for less than its fair market value.
  2. The “seller” communicates solely through electronic means. Many of these impostors are located out of state or abroad and refuse face-to-face meetings.
  3. The “seller” typically arranges for a remote closing using their own chosen remote notary. Caution is advised, as the scammer might even impersonate the notary and provide counterfeit documents at the closing.

To protect against such scams, Lee advises real estate professionals to perform their due diligence to verify the seller’s legitimacy as the actual property owner. Request multiple forms of identification and evidence of ownership, and insist on an in-person meeting. Many scammers limit their communication to electronic means, so Lee suggests testing the seller’s knowledge of the property with details not readily available in public records or online.

Additionally, real estate professionals should exercise caution if the seller insists on their own notary at closing. Lee suggests allowing the title company to select a notary whenever possible. If that’s not an option, ensure the notary is a “vetted, independent, and approved remote online notary.” Before transferring any funds in a transaction, ask the seller for a copy of a voided check along with a disbursement authorization form.