By Jill Bright | Guest Author Diana Hoffman | Chicago Title
Eight sale transactions were opened at different closing locations throughout the state of Arizona, so none of the offices knew of the other transactions being processed. The documents were supposedly signed in South Africa in front of a duly authorized notary.
Luckily, our Chief Title Officer reviewed the returned signed documents thoroughly. He noticed that “notarial” was misspelled in the notary’s seal. The spelling of notarial was with an “O” instead of an “A.”
The CTO then performed an internet search of the notary’s name, Virginia Blaser, which confirmed the documents were forged, since the notary was no longer in South Africa. This is what he found online:
A FAREWELL MESSAGE FROM U.S. CONSUL GENERAL IN CAPE TOWN VIRIGINA BLASER
OCTOBER 29, 2020
It has been an honor and privilege to serve both the United States and South Africa in this special role. I am humbled by the many wonderful friendships offered to me, thankful for the many chances to grow as a diplomat and as a person during this posting and comforted by the enduring presence the Cape now has in my heart.
Signing off, one last time, as the U.S. Consul General to Cape Town…a fond farewell to you all. May we meet again…
U.S. Consul General in Cape Town
Then he found this announcement:
We’re excited to announce that U.S. Consul General Virginia Blaser is headed to East London next week! … Sep 12, 2020
The first deed reviewed by our CTO was supposedly notarized on March 23, 2022, in South Africa, by U.S. Consul General Blaser. Clearly, it was a forgery since the notary was no longer located in South Africa.
All of the property files our CTO reviewed were non-owner-occupied vacant lots. The sellers were all in South Africa and the properties were all listed for sale by licensed real estate agents.
The sellers reached out to the real estate agents via email to list the lots for sale. The real estate agent’s only method of communication with the sellers was by email. They never met the seller by any other means. The lots were priced competitively for a quick sale attracting investors who had cash in hand to purchase them resulting in a quick escrow.
Our CTO immediately notified underwriting of his findings. Underwriting sent out communications to all of the Company’s operations which said:
URGENT! Anytime the property is vacant or non-owner occupied send a notice out to the owner immediately. Although there are other ways to identify this scam, the best defense is to reach out directly to the owner at the address their tax bill is sent to. In addition, this alerts them so they can keep tabs on their property.
With that in mind, real estate agents and title companies can take steps to prevent this crime from happening. One way is to compare the mailing address provided by the seller to the address on the tax bill. If the tax bill address is different from the seller-provided mailing address, then a letter should be sent to the address on the tax bill notifying the seller of the pending transaction.
At Chicago Title, we send a notice via overnight delivery that reads:
Notice of Pending Real Estate Transaction
To: Record Owner @ address on the tax bill
Re: Property Address Order Number:
Thank you for choosing [insert Company name]. We are delighted to be of service to you. We are in the process of preparing a [insert preliminary report or title commitment] for the [insert sale or loan] of the property listed above. Should you have any questions or be unaware of this transaction, please contact the undersigned immediately.
While waiting for the owner to reply, set up a virtual meeting. Ask the potential seller simple questions such as:
- When did they acquire the property?
- For how much?
- Why are they selling?
- Where do they reside?
- Why is the tax bill sent to a different address?
- What is that address?
- Who did they buy the property from?
- Ask them to show you I.D. by having them hold it up to the camera
These are only suggested questions. Other questions or actions may be appropriate depending on the specifics of the transaction. The intent of the questions are not necessarily to require or obtain perfectly accurate answers but to determine whether or not the sellers are the legitimate owners. The actual owner may not remember exact details that could be read from a recorded instrument. However, they will likely remember the context or be able to provide information that a fraudster with access to public records would not know.
Additionally, these questions should only be asked when speaking to the seller on the phone or virtually. The questions should never be emailed or provided in advance, as that would give an imposter the opportunity to research the answers. These imposters are part of criminal syndicates. They do not work alone, are very smart, and know how to use the internet to find the answers. If the seller declines to talk by phone or virtually and/or gives an excuse of why they cannot then proceed with caution.
This scam is being perpetrated all over the country. Therefore, pay close attention to the spelling of the seller’s name on all documents, including purchase and sale contracts, and a passport or a driver’s license. Be sure to send a letter to the property owner at the address where the tax bill is sent. This is the quickest and best way to avoid becoming a victim.
The moral of the story is that our Title Department and Escrow Officers are trained to detect and prevent fraud which ultimately protects you!
Article provided by contributing author:
Diana Hoffman, Corporate Escrow Administrator
FNTG/National Escrow Administration