Scams Target Real Estate Agents, Lawyers

Recently we (Realty Times) published a story in our magazine about a real estate scam in which someone assumed the identity of a real estate agent and offered one of her listed properties for rent online. Using wording from her listing, the fraudster described the beautiful Saskatoon home (three bedrooms, three bathrooms, large double garage) and offered it on the Kijiji website for just $1,000 a month, including utilities. For those looking for a home to rent, it seemed too good to be true – because it was.

The fraudsters used the real estate agent's name and set up a fake Yahoo email account. People who responded to the ad were told the owners were in Africa doing "God's work" and that they had the keys with them, which they would send after a $1,000 transfer was wired to them.

When the agent, Kari Calder, found out what was going on, she posted a notice on her website about the scam, told the homeowner to put a notice on her door and had the ad removed from Kijiji. She also called local police and the media, but people continued to show up at the house to take a look at this fabulous rental opportunity.

When we published the story it was the first time we had heard about this scam, but we soon found out that it has been around for a long time. Our website was inundated with comments from Realtors across the country who had similar experiences.

"This just happened to me last week," wrote one Realtor. "One of my listings (in Oshawa, Ont.) was offered for rent on Craig's List for $500 inclusive per month. It is a legal duplex with 4+1 bedrooms…They used my wording and pictures from my website. The lady who finally called me went to the house and looked in the windows, and was quite upset when she could not get that property for such an unheard-of price."

An agent in Cambridge, Ont. wrote, "Same thing happened to me. We called the police, put a notice up on the property and put an ad on Kijiji about the fraudster. In this case he didn't use my name – but unfortunately before it was brought to my attention, many people fell for it and sent the wire transfer to the guy for the insanely low rent."

A Vancouver agent said the fraudsters used the names Cheryl and Ramir Quijada. "They are telling people that they just got transferred to London and the keys of the place are with them and this is why they can't physically see the unit…They are requesting the potential tenant to send a deposit of $1,900 and a signed lease agreement. We have had lots of people knocking on the door demanding to see the place."

Other sales reps reported the same scam on their listings in Whistler, B.C., and Kingston and Barrie in Ontario.

There is little that the police can do about such scams other than warning people about them. This particular fraud has been making the rounds for some time, but it seems there are always new victims to be found.

Lawyers are not immune to being targeted by real estate fraudsters. Recently the Law Society of British Columbia warned that three B.C. lawyers in different locations were asked to act on separate real estate purchases for Kin Hang Cheung, who said he was a new client from outside of Canada. The properties were listed with three separate Realtors who had made the lawyer referrals.

In each case, says the law society, Cheung provided a bad cheque for an amount much more than was required for deposit into the lawyer's trust account. "The scam appears to be that Cheung signs a contract of purchase and sale with a subject to inspection clause or that he has another avenue to back out of the deal," says the society. "He will then ask for his deposit back, presumably by electronic transfer, less the lawyer's fees and disbursements. If the lawyer wires the funds from his or her pooled trust accounts, the lawyer's account will be short and perhaps overdrawn."

In Ontario, the Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company (LAWPRO) says real estate agents and lawyers are being targeted with the same scam. "To date we've heard from lawyers in Toronto (purchase of a Niagara property), Ottawa, London, Barrie, Orillia, Port Hope and Trenton who have been contacted by Cheung," says the company.

For anyone involved with a real estate deal, LAWPRO says some of the "red flags" to watch for include an individual who uses a personal email account from AOL, MSN, Gmail or a similar free email service. Beware of clients who say they can only communicate by email because of time zone differences. Watch for emails where the sender's email address and the displayed name for that address are different, or emails that request that a reply be sent to a person or email address that is different from the sender's name or email address.

"Many email scams are obvious due to poor spelling, bad grammar and/or completely untenable fact circumstances (such as multi-million-dollar lottery wins or inheritances)," says LAWPRO. "However, some of the email-based frauds LAWPRO is seeing are extremely sophisticated and look like completely legitimate legal matters. The more sophisticated frauds have temporarily fooled new and experienced lawyers."

LAWPRO also has a webpage that shows examples of fake IDs, documents and cheques that have been sent to lawyers as part of a fraud. "We often get asked, 'how could anyone fall for these scams?' This page demonstrates just how sophisticated the fraud attempts can be."

Written by Jim Adair
July 17, 2012
Subscribe to Amit Kalia's Realty Times Newletter