You may remember receiving a Fraud Alert from LAILTA by email October 21, 2015 regarding an experience by an agent member in Baton Rouge. Well that member was me, Pat Miller (Preferred Title Company). I reported the incident to my underwriters, and one, Stewart, asked me to write a short narrative of the activity surrounding the attempted fraud. By the time I had the narrative ready to send, the fraudsters reached out again and again to continue the scam. I believe the fraudsters and I have finally finished the journey, so with that being the case, I wanted to share with you the experience and point out some red flags for those of you who have not marked as spam the crazy email requests you receive. Which, though these look invitingly real, may only lead you to ‘follow the rabbit down the hole.’
The ride started with an innocent enough title order referral by email dated in late September, 2015, timed at 6:47 a.m. CT which would have been 4:47 am PT, from a California real estate agent (they get up that early?), for property in Bossier City. The next few emails would reveal that the alleged buyer was from Colorado and the funds were coming from a foreign bank. Innocent, right? The first few clues that this was not a real referral began with the language of the sender. I am no English major, but no one talks American like these guys, so British and all you know. Next the real estate agent had very little return address information in that initial email and all subsequent emails. There were no required jurisdictional statements such as State of licensure or license number, no company logos, no puffery we are all so accustomed to seeing from those in the real estate brokerage business. Not to mention the early time of day for the email. BTW the time in Ottawa, Canada, the likely source of the email, was about, 7:47 am.
I was bored and had little to do back in September and October 2015, other than some menial tasks to complete for something called Best Practices and other minor technical adjustments for TRID updates to computers and office procedures. No, I really needed something to occupy my time… So I checked online for the real estate agent and found that such an agent and company did exist, with the same office address and phone number the fraudster had provided in his initial email. However, when I contacted the California agent, by phone number which I found listed with the State of California Bureau of Real Estate, I was advised that the email used by the fraudster was different than the bona fide California real estate agent’s. Not to mention the true real estate agent came unglued at the news of this fraudulent email, as you see he had been the victim of these scammers before. His attorney became a constant email correspondent during this adventure. In talking with them over the next several months, I found some common points between all the real persons who the scammers were imitating. All the parties had links with loopnet.com which is a valid media service like dotloop.net and others used by those in the real estate business, from which information can be mined easily online, and apparently was. You may recall earlier in 2015 we reported to LAILTA of a fraud attempt using dotloop.net and an alleged real estate broker asking for checks to be wired to his account, alas they had missed the memo that the transaction closed at 12 noon that day and not 2pm as had been reported on dotloop.net.
I responded to the initial title referral with a statement that I only handled property in the Greater Baton Rouge area, but that I could refer them to someone in the Bossier area. They never even asked for me to do that. I tried to send this to one of my many friends in Shreveport Bossier, LOL.
The very next day I received an email from the scam-buyer, which email had a 5-page purchase agreement attached for property in Bossier City, which contract required a deposit of $99,500.00 to be made by the buyer. The scam-buyer assumed the name of a professor at a university in Colorado, and the names and addresses for both the seller and buyer were confirmed by me by first searching online and then calling the real buyer and the real seller’s agent. The real seller was out of town and I was not able to contact him. I searched for the property on Google and Zillow, and found it was listed with a local broker, whose website I also viewed. The real seller’s agent advised that the property had been on the market for several months, but only recently had the national franchise to which he belonged placed the property information on their national media site, which is affiliated with loopnet.com. He also stated I was the second Louisiana title agent to contact him in the last few days.
I was requested to provide the scam-buyer and scam-agent with a preliminary settlement statement, which I did with fees 3-times our customary competitive fees, and responded that upon receipt of the deposit I would deposit the funds into our escrow account and order title. Had to make them think I was eager for the closing, they never said a word about the extra steep fees, guess they believed title agents make lots of money… The alleged buyer did not ask immediately for wiring instructions, but indicated that the buyer would send me a certified check which I would hold until the due diligence inspections were done.
I located the real buyer, a nice guy, who had just bought a house, which house listing and sale information, with address of course, were conveniently available on … loopnet.com. I contacted the professor, and he told me this was the 5th such scam using his name and address as the buyer. He has since enlisted the help of the local deputy sheriff in the financial crimes unit with whom I have exchanged numerous emails. The Professor sent me a few of the other purchase agreements he was alleged to be involved with, all using him as the buyer, but with a different seller in each of Florida, Ohio, Iowa, etc…. all had the name of a real person as the seller. I verified with local title attorney in Florida, who had received a similar scam email naming the Professor as the buyer, that the Florida property addresses and descriptions were real and verified. Oddly enough the scammers signed over the printed names of the buyer and seller, in a cursive writing style that did not vary one smidgeon from contract to contract. All the sellers had the same signatures!!
Several weeks went by without further emails, and sadly I returned to The Reason I Dance, I mean TRID. Then on Wednesday, Oct 21, nearly three weeks after the last email, I received via Xpresspost (Canadian Postal Service), a check for $99,500.00 drawn on the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, with instructions to deposit the check immediately and wait for word from the buyer that the due diligence inspections were complete, at which point I was to wire the deposit to the seller. This is the point at which I sent the FRAUD ALERT to members of LAILTA. I received several responses and one that connected me with an FBI agent in Knoxville who was already investigating similar scams.
The contract provided a 30 day due diligence period, amazingly however, the buyer, got to Bossier City from Colorado a mere 16-1/2 hour drive over 3 states of 1060 miles, completed the due diligence inspection of a commercial property and sent me notice on Oct 22, the next day, that the inspections were complete and satisfactory and that I should immediately wire the funds to the seller. Heck, these guys didn’t even suggest I keep a little for my troubles to date, another obvious clue that this was not a real deal…LOL. The scam seller sent me wiring instructions, which I immediately forwarded to the FBI agent, who confirmed the wire was to an account in Armenia.
Now the fun really began. The deposit check was from a bank out of the country, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and has not ever been deposited. The bank is a for real bank, and the check looks very real, the logo seems to match and there are live signatures and watermarks. So I called the main office of the CIBC and I spoke to their fraud department in Toronto, and sent them a scanned copy of the front of the check. They confirmed the check was a fraudulent document and that the routing number was for a branch bank in British Columbia. I called the branch and let them know about the check and they verified the routing number was correct but that there was no such account number.
I replied to the scammers that I would have to go to my bank to personally deposit the check and then order a wire transfer, but that I was not going to be able to do this for a few days. At this point let me say they burned up the email inbox. Each day the emails came quicker and quicker, with more urgency each time, asking if I sent the wire.
Finally on Tues Oct 27 I sent the scam buyer, scam seller and scam agent an email that stated I had gone to my bank to order the wire transmittal, but that the banker told me there seemed to be a problem with the check I had tried to deposit, and that they were not able to send the wire. So I told the scammers not to worry, I had put the check in a FedX package that very day and sent it to the address in the purchase agreement for the buyer with instructions to send me another certified check for $99,500.00 drawn on a bank in the USA… signed “Puzzlewits”. I thought they would understand I had ‘outed’ them and that I would not hear from them again. So for the second time I sat down to write a narrative to my underwriter.
Lo and behold, before I could complete that task, I got another call, one that raised some concerns on my part. Seems the Mounties were on the trail, that’s right “Dudley Do-right” of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was calling me. Actually she identified herself as ‘Detective Linda Borck’ I use her name as it turns out to be fake as the rest. She explained that she was investigating a scam and would need me to send her the check I had. I asked myself how does she know I have a check, the bank maybe told her I called them about a fraud? How did she know I had not deposited it, was someone at the real bank in on this…? I listened to her explanation of her investigation and suspected she was not a Mountie, but not just because she had a heavy mid-eastern accent, no she just seemed too pushy to call an American Citizen and be so rude. I told her I would have to get back to her, and asked if she could give me a number to call and she did. At last a phone number, the first time I had gotten a phone number from them other than the obvious stolen numbers. I checked online and the number originated in Ottawa, I immediately sent the number to the FBI agent. No luck.
So I called the Ottawa office of the RCMP and spoke to Sergeant Ron. Ron told me 1) there are no Detectives in the RCMP, 2) there is no one associated with the RCMP named Linda Borck and 3) a Mountie would have first given me a badge number, did I have hers? No I said, but I will call her back. I did and when I asked the Detective for her badge number she stammered, I could hear someone in the background coaching her. At which point I pulled the curtain on the charade and told her, “I spoke to Sgt Ron of the Real RCMPs who says there are no Detectives in the Mounties, there is no Linda Borck registered as a Mountie, and that I knew she was one of the scammers. That the last several months had been fun but that I was done with the game, good-bye now.” That was in January 2016.
Since that time the real buyer in Colorado has sent me notice of two more attempted scams with all the same contracts and signatures, only the price and names and addresses are changed. The FBI agent admitted that to find a needle in haystack would be easier than to find them, and as the law provides, unless and until there is a loss they don’t have jurisdiction nor funds to chase each of these scam attempts. The Deputy Sheriff in Colorado seemed more optimistic, but then he was a young officer full of energy.
It appears that the legitimate Louisiana real estate agent put the property on the franchise company’s corporate site, which coincided with the first email request which was received by me for the referral to handle the closing. The fraudsters most likely got information for their scam from that posting which also goes to a social media site known as “loopnet.com”. I stated earlier that loopnet.com is a ‘social’ media site used by both the national franchise company and the California real estate agent. And my company information, website and email address is out there like yours, available to anyone who would like to do business.
One other commonality was the use of scammers of email accounts all with ‘gmail.com’. Once during the email exchanges the scammers inadvertently hit the send button on an email exactly like the first title referral email but asked if I did closings in Virginia. I can just see them saying, anitsel, anitsel, anitsel, which is “Damn, Damn, Damn” in Armenian. We have all had that experience of sending before thinking.
Just as they are able to obtain verifiable information on the people and places, so can you. So before you deposit that check, do some due diligence of your own; that is of course if you don’t first mark the email as spam and block the sender. Lastly, if you would please let the Board of Directors of LAILTA know the facts of any attempted scams. LAILTA will send ALERTS to all member title agents in the state to be on the alert for scams in their area.