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How to protect against a fraudster selling vacant land YOU own

Aerial view of land in Upstate New York

For the past few years, I’ve been closely tracking a crime that’s becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, called title theft.

Title theft, or deed theft, is when a fraudster finds a vacant property, typically land with an out of state owner, impersonates the owner and sells the land to an unsuspecting buyer. These scams have occurred throughout the country, causing massive financial and emotional distress for both the rightful property owners — and in many cases, even worse for the unsuspecting buyers.

They frequently involve vacant land because these landowners often live far away from it, and haven’t been to their land in years, sometimes decades. The scammer will look for these types of property, then will contact a realtor and claim to be the landowner who wants to sell the property. Once a realtor takes the bait, they put the property up for sale (usually at a very attractive price to move it quickly). Why? The scammer just wants cash with the least amount of friction before someone catches on. Once they accept an offer, the scammer will either use a fake ID, or a notary who is in on the scam, and signs the documents and deed for the property. After they receive the funds in their account, they transfer them out as quickly as possible, never to be seen again.

Often, the scam will be caught before everything is done. A sharp attorney or escrow officer will see something strange or get a bad feeling, and digs deeper. Or a neighbor calls the owner to tell them they’re surprised the owner is selling and didn’t tell the neighbor. Then there are certain processes and software solutions the really advanced title companies and attorneys use that can stop this – more to come on this.

 

For the scams that are successful – it often takes months or years to discover the fraud. You can imagine the mess that then has to be cleaned up! Here are just a handful of recent stories I’ve come across where it’s happened:

Houston woman’s land stolen in title theft scam (Fox 26 Houston)

Vacant landowner found out his property was listed Zillow and was under contract with TWO buyers! (abc15 Arizona)

Shelter Island saw doalmost a dozen instances of fraud with vacant land in a few weeks

Aaaaannnnddd…the absolute worst case came true in the Fall of last year. A landowner returned to his land to find a $1.5 million house being built on it by a company who had bought the land from a scammer (UNILAD). The landowner sued the company who bought it, but honestly, they’re both the victim. Update: I found the court records, and it looks like Sky Top Partners LLC settled with Dr. Kenigsberg, and will get to keep the land and not have to tear down the house.

How could this have been prevented? Well, the reality is that it could have been stopped through processes like identity verification and vigilant realtors and closing agents.

The question that anyone and everyone who owns land is (or should be) asking is: what can I do about it, or how can I stop this from happening to me?

I’m glad you asked. While you can’t prevent this from happening altogether, here are a few steps you can take to reduce the chances of it happening to you (and no, buying Home Title Lock insurance is not one of them):

  1. Sign up for fraud alerts in every county where you own land or real estate.
  2. Know your neighbors, and get them to help keep an eye out.
  3. Set up an alert for properties on real estate websites like Zillow or Redfin.
  4. Get out to your land, or get someone out there who can.
  5. Secure (and monitor) your land.

1. Sign Up for County Clerk Fraud Alerts

This is a must do. Many, if not most, county clerks offer a free service that alerts you when a document is recorded against your property. I’ve gotten a few of these on properties that I’ve legitimately sold – and, while it comes a couple weeks after documents are recorded, it’s much better than finding out about something like this months or years after, giving you a much better shot at cleaning up the situation with minimal cost.

Here is an example of this type of service the Williamson County Clerk in Texas offers. Try searching for “property fraud alert” and your county, as well as the word clerk. For example, if you search the words Grimes County Texas clerk property fraud alert, you’ll get these resultsIf you can’t find anything about your county clerk offering this type of a service, just give them a call and ask – and if they don’t have one, ask them why they don’t have it yet.

Many counties in New York State have these – you can find the list and a link to it in a previous blog post of ours.

It’s super easy to do and only take a few minutes – I highly recommend doing this wherever you own property.

2. Know thy neighbors and keep an eye out for each other

If you own vacant land, knowing your neighbors can be helpful – especially on smaller acreage where they can keep an eye on it easily. What happens when they see a for sale sign go up? They will call you.

This exact situation happened where a neighbor on a 30 acre piece of land we own in Lampasas, Texas put a for sale sign up. All the neighbors communicated and it turned out the neighbor was in fact putting it up for sale, but if it had not been them, we would have figured it out quickly. Neighbors can help keep an eye on your property and report any unusual activity like unexpected visitors or strange happenings — that can also help with situations like squatters. Provide them with your contact information and ask them to reach out if they notice anything suspicious.

In addition to asking your neighbors to watch for suspicious activity, consider giving them a list of authorized visitors or contractors who may be visiting your property – especially when you’re not there. This can help them distinguish between legitimate activity and something worse.

Building a strong network of neighbors who look out for each other’s properties can be an effective way to deter scammers and catch title theft attempts early on. Consider organizing regular meetings or establishing a communication channel, such as a group email or text thread, to keep everyone informed and connected – this is what we do out there, and it works well.

3. Set Up Alerts on Real Estate Websites

Websites like Zillow and Redfin allow you to set up alerts for specific properties you own. By setting up an alert for your vacant land, you’ll receive a notification if your property is listed for sale without your knowledge. This early warning can help you stop a fraudulent sale before it closes.

If you’re really concerned about it – it can’t hurt to occasionally search for your property on these websites, as well as other online marketplaces like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.

In addition to monitoring real estate websites, consider setting up Google Alerts for your property address or parcel number. This will notify you if your property is mentioned online, which can help you identify any suspicious activity or fraudulent listings.

4. Get out to your land, or get someone out there who can

If possible, make regular visits to your vacant land. During these visits, you can often find signs that something is amiss – the most obvious being a ‘for sale’ sign. If you notice anything suspicious, document it with photos and contact local authorities if necessary.

If you live far from your vacant land, consider hiring a local property management company to perform regular checks on your behalf – though, unless you’re talking about a several hundred acre ranch where they’re managing things, this is probably cost prohibitive.

Regular property visits not only help you stop title theft attempts, but if you’re doing work out at the land, like clearing it or maintenance, that may deter folks from messing with it.

5. Secure (and monitor) your land

Consider installing physical barriers, such as fences or gates, to deter trespassers and make it more difficult for scammers to access your land. Additionally, posting “No Trespassing” signs can help establish that any unauthorized presence on your property is illegal. Granted, this only really applies to larger tracts of land, but you should really do this if you do own one.

In addition to physical barriers, consider getting security cameras. got a 4G connected camera from reolink, and that’s been hugely helpful for us to see if anyone is on our property.

Motion-activated lights to deter trespassers and monitor activity on your land. If your property is large or remote, you can even invest in satellite monitoring services that can alert you to any changes or disturbances on your land.

The Role of Technology in Preventing Title Theft

As technology advances, new tools and services are becoming available to help landowners protect their property from title theft. Some of these include:

  • Blockchain-based land registries that provide a secure, tamper-proof record of property ownership
  • Smart contracts that automate the transfer of property ownership and prevent unauthorized changes
  • AI-powered monitoring services that can detect and alert landowners to suspicious activity on their property

While these technologies are in their infancy, they may offer promising solutions for landowners looking to safeguard their property rights in this tech-crazy world.

For example, blockchain-based land registries can provide a transparent and immutable record of property ownership, making it much more difficult for scammers to forge documents or manipulate records. Smart contracts can automate the transfer of ownership and ensure that all parties involved in a transaction are properly identified and authorized.

AI-powered monitoring services can analyze satellite imagery, drone footage, and other data sources to detect changes or anomalies on a property, such as unauthorized construction or land disturbance. These services can alert landowners to potential title theft attempts and provide evidence that can be used in legal proceedings.

As these technologies continue to evolve, it’s essential for landowners to stay informed about the latest tools and services available to protect their property rights. By adopting a proactive and tech-savvy approach to land ownership, you can reduce the risk of falling victim to title theft and other fraudulent activities.

The Importance of Vigilance

As a landowner, you’ve got to stay on guard to protect yourself from title theft. By implementing the strategies outlined above and remaining alert to potential scams, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to this growing crime.

It’s a shame it’s come to this, but you have to educate yourself and stay informed about the latest trends and tactics used by title theft scammers. Attend local landowner meetings, join online forums or social media groups, and subscribe to industry publications to stay up-to-date on the latest news to see what’s going on.

By staying vigilant and proactive, you can safeguard your property rights and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing your land is secure.

What if you suspect title theft has already happened to you?

If you believe that someone has targeted your vacant land and tried to sell it, or may have successfully – act fast and deal with it head on. Here are some steps you should take:

  1. Contact your local law enforcement agency and file a report
  2. Contact any real estate websites or marketplaces where your property is being fraudulently listed and request that the listings be removed. Also contact any realtors who may have been listing it.
  3. Contact the county district attorney who can help assist you.

When filing a report with law enforcement, provide as much evidence as possible, including any fraudulent documents, listings, or correspondence related to the attempted title theft. Be sure to keep copies of all reports and communications for your records.

The sooner you act, the better your chances of preventing or reversing a fraudulent transfer of your property. Don’t hesitate to seek help from professionals and authorities who can assist you in protecting your land and your rights as a property owner – they’re on your side.

And if you ever have any questions or need help with this – feel free to reach out to us anytime – you can call at 512-650-8345 or you can email us at hello@haystackland.com.

About Haystack Land Company

We started Haystack Land Company with the core value of “integrity above all else” in mind, and it reaches into everything that we do. Our goal is to do right by our customers, business partners and providers — and to treat them with the care and respect that every individual deserves.

We buy vacant land, hunting land, recreational land, timberland, farm land — any kind of land, all over Texas, Upstate New York, including the Finger Lakes, Catskills, Adirondacks, Central New York, Western New York, the Southern Tier and the North Country. We also buy vacant land in New Hampshire, Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and all over the United States.

If you own vacant land (or any kind of land for that matter) and you’re interested in selling, please contact us to get an offer within 48 hours. 

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