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Stafford detectives investigating local land fraud cases

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for sale sign

Stafford detectives are urging residents to be mindful of a possible scam that's targeting land owners' property and their personal identities.

Stafford County detectives are investigating a scheme targeting local landowners’ identities and the vacant property they own.

“This has been around for a very long time,” said Matt Young, an attorney at EKKO Title of Fredericksburg. “It’s a scam that has existed even before the internet.”

Stafford Commissioner of the Revenue Scott Mayausky said last week a property owner came to his office complaining his 20 acres of land was listed for sale on Redfin for close to $200,000. Mayausky said the property owner lives outside the county and came to Stafford’s government center not knowing which way to turn for help. Mayausky walked him to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m hoping this is the early stages of a scam and we’re hopefully catching it before someone loses money in the process,” Mayausky said. “The end game has got to be money. There’s no other reason to go through the hoops unless you plan on benefitting financially.”

County detectives say whoever is responsible for the two land fraud cases they are investigating now appears to be picking out vacant lots from county records then assuming the property owner’s identity to get the parcel listed for sale.

“The realtors are then posting the lots for sale believing that it is a valid transaction until the owners find the signs for sale on their lot,” said Detective David Flues.

Young said “it’s totally plausible” for someone to tell a realtor they own property locally and need to sell it for quick cash but now live in another country or state.

“That’s a red flag, but it does happen,” Young said. “If the fraudster is convincing, it’ll sometimes gets to a listing.”

Flues said so far, none of the bogus deals have made their way to the finish line.

“Right now, we’ve been able to stop any sales from happening,” Flues said.

Young, whose firm specializes in residential real estate transactions, said although real estate deals happening without the seller being physically present are not uncommon, other red flags should should raise a realtor’s attention, such as the seller’s unwillingness to meet with a realtor face to face.

“It’s really going to be up to the individual agent to be on the lookout for these types of red flags, but there’s also no reason that somebody couldn’t sell the property that way,” Young said. He further advised realtors: “Ask for a driver’s license to be sent your way or try to do a Zoom meeting to at least get their face on a screen.”

With the investigation still in its early stages, Flues would not provide any details of the cases he’s working on, but he said investigators are looking at every angle, including tracing the perpetrator’s internet protocol address back to its source.

“We’re going to go through all the processes to find out where this is coming from,” Flues said.

Both Flues and Young said there are several steps property owners living outside the area can take to help prevent land fraud and identity theft cases from occurring, such as asking friends or neighbors to keep an eye out on their property for unsolicited “For Sale” signs.

“You want to make sure there’s nobody that’s in possession of the property that shouldn’t be, there’s nobody living on it or using it in some way that’s adverse to you,” Young said. “Keeping an eye on the property every so often is a good idea.”

For residents who live near the vacant property they own, Flues suggests an occasional drive-by of their parcel to ensure everything is in order, but he also suggests purchasing a third-party title monitoring service that can notify the subscriber when a real estate or financial transaction occurs related to their account.

“Then you’ll be notified by these companies and that would be a way to make sure that you are notified no matter what if your property is being tampered with,” Flues said.

Young said property owners should also invest in title insurance. He said that way, if a fraudulent seller manages to fool everyone along the way and the sale succeeds in going through, the property owner is still protected.

“They’re going to cover them and make them whole again,” Young said. “Write them a check if they need to and then go and try to find the fraudster and get their money back if they can.”

Young said Virginia law protects property owners in these cases and the property cannot be ultimately sold from under them.

“It is going to be a hassle to unsort everything, but they still get to own the property at the end of the day,” Young said.

Although no money has changed hands in the cases being investigated, Flues urges all property owners who feel they’ve been victimized to immediately contact the real estate company that listed their property and then contact the Sheriff’s Office.

“Advise them that this is a fraud, that your identity has potentially been compromised and you are the property owner,” Flues said. “Then call the Sheriff’s Office where your property is located.”

Flues said those reports in Stafford are forwarded to the county’s fraud unit for investigation.

“This is ongoing,” Flues said. “Please report it if it happens.”

James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438

jbaron@freelancestar.com

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