Home News Buyer beware: Scammers falsely listing Florida real estate without owners’ permission

Buyer beware: Scammers falsely listing Florida real estate without owners’ permission

Buyer beware: Scammers falsely listing Florida real estate without owners’ permission

  • Scammers are victimizing Floridians by falsely listing lots or homes online at low prices.
  • Anyone can be victimized if a scammer fraudulently lists their property for sale.
  • Real estate agents say that they have a number of safeguards in place but scammers are getting smarter.

Catherine Greenleaf opened an email from her real estate company with links to new listings, like she did every morning.

The owner of 2.4 acres in Pine Island’s St. James City, she and her husband, Tony, hoped to buy a lot adjacent to theirs. They plan to build a home on Pine Island and want to create a bird sanctuary on the property, as well.

But when the property sale search results loaded, the first listing on the page was her own property. 

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She thought it was a mistake.

Greenleaf refreshed the page. After all, she owned her lot and hadn’t listed it. But still, when the page reloaded, the top result was her own: 5366 Western Dr., available for purchase at $185,000.

A screenshot of the email Catherine Greenleaf received Nov. 21, 2022 advertising her own property for sale. Experts say these vacant lot scams are common in hot property markets like Southwest Florida.

“I freaked out,” she said. 

Greenleaf was the victim of what is known as a land scam, which real estate and law enforcement experts say is becoming very common in hot real estate markets like Southwest Florida.

Many of these land scammers are being traced back to Nigeria, Russia, or Eastern European countries, and data shows popular targets are often the elderly. They’re leaving many Floridians embroiled in paperwork and civil litigation trying to prove that their land was sold out from under them, or worse: trying to recoup money they spent on land that was never truly for sale.

Seniors most at risk

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While Florida is the third most populous stspante, it is the second most defrauded state behind only California, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which handles internet-based fraud such as Greenleaf experienced. Its hot real estate market and its older population makes it a popular target for scammers.

According to 2022 U.S. Census Burespanu dspantspan, Florida led all U.S. states in net migration, and its property market has been booming for quite some time. 

Furthermore, seniors are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of scams. A study in the journal Annspanls of Internspanl Medicine indicates that as we age, we become more vulnerable to falling for fraud or scams as we become more socially isolated.

Per census data, Florida is home to two of the six oldest counties of the nation: Charlotte and Sumter counties. The latter is home to The Villages, a popular retirement destination. 

Catherine and Anthony Greenleaf were the victims of a land scam. Here, they are pictured on vacation in the Everglades.

A 2016 study by the AARP estimated that 50% of the wealth in the U.S. was held by those 50 and over. And in its 2021 spannnuspanl report, the FBI found people over 50 are the most frequent targets of scams, with the likelihood of being the victim of a scam increasing for every decade you age.

The FBI’s data shows there has been a steady increase in real estate or rental scam losses reported by victims over the last three years. Nationwide, in 2021, 11,578 people reported losing $350,328,166 due to these types of scams, up 64% from 2020. 

Another study out of New York Stspante estimated only one in 44 cases of financial exploitation or fraud are ever reported, meaning the amount of money lost is likely far higher than official statistics can show.

‘I knew right away’

Upon realizing her property wasn’t listed for sale by mistake, Greenleaf immediately called her Realtor to help her get the listing taken down. 

“I knew right away what it was,” said Greenleaf’s Realtor, Jeannette Udwary, with Jones & Co. Realty in Fort Myers and Cape Coral said. “A scam.”

Udwary contacted the listing Realtor, Amanda Ritter of Exit Select Realty in Fort Myers. Ritter had posted it after she was contacted by someone who called himself Anthony, Greenleaf’s husband’s name. The man claimed he wanted to sell the Pine Island lot.

The scammer provided Ritter with an abundance of information, she said. He gave her email addresses for a Tony Green and a Cathy Green –– both false –– as well as a phone number that started with New Hampshire’s 603 area code. The number was a fake, but Ritter didn’t know that.

“It wasn’t your typical scam,” Ritter said. “They’re getting smarter, or they’re getting more balls.”

A screenshot of the Realtor.com listing of the Greenleafs' Pine Island lot. It is now listed as off the market.

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“Anthony” seemed very knowledgeable about the property, she said. He passed the unofficial test real estate agents put potential clients through with flying colors, answering all her questions about the property history without issue. 

When Udwary contacted Ritter on Greenleaf’s behalf, Ritter, shocked, called the 603 number he’d given her, but it was a dead end. She messaged him on Zillow, where he’d initially contacted her, and told him she had more questions for him. In the meantime, she removed the listing. 

An hour or so later, he called back from an Orlando number. 

“I said, ‘Why are you trying to list someone else’s property? Do you get something out of this?'” said Ritter. “I basically lectured him like I do my 5-year-old. And then I heard a ‘click.'”

Calls The New-Press / Naples Daily News placed to the Orlando number affiliated with the fraudulent listing went unanswered. 

How to spot a land scam

This is a view of the lot at 5366 Western Dr. In St. James City.  Real estate owners report scammers are listing their properties for sale without their permission.

Jones & Co. Realty owner and broker JJ Jones said these scams are common enough that real estate agents are getting wise to them. She estimated her real estate company, whose site lists more than 130 certified Realtors, saw one of these scams a week.

Typically, Jones said, scammers claim to be from a foreign country, such as England, Germany or China. They’ll provide false documentation, say they can only talk via email, and tell an agent they want to sell quickly for cash. Oftentimes they’ll say they’re willing to accept a below-market price to sell it fast. 

“We get their paperwork, we get them listed … and under contract, and all of a sudden, we find out they’re not the owner,” said Jones. 

Jones and her Realtors now require potential sellers to at least get on a Zoom meeting with them, so they can verify they are who they say they are, and they employ a third-party company that reviews the documents their sellers provide to ensure they are real and unaltered. Other brokerage firms require new sellers to use their in-house notary, or they won’t accept the listing.

But Jones said that no matter how careful you are, people can still get taken in. In one instance she recalled, a client attempted to sell his property through Jones & Co. Realty only to find out that he had never owned the property in the first place, she said. He’d been scammed long before he tried to sell it through her company.

“This has been ongoing,” Jones said. “It’s really ramped up over the over the last year because the values are so high.”

How can I protect myself?

If you believe yourself the victim of a land scam, Jones advised to immediately call your real estate agent, broker or title company to alert them to potential fraud. Beyond that, she said, your next step should be to file a complaint with the IRS or FBI.

In Florida, seniors or disabled adults can freeze their finspannces if they think they’ve been scammed, giving them time to speak with law enforcement or an attorney. Additionally, your local Realtor group may even have additional tips or educspantionspanl clspansses for landowners worried about land scams. 

Lt. Chad Parker, the head of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Financial Crimes Bureau since 2009, also owns his own brokerage in Naples, called Prime Real Estate of SWFL. He said he’s seen these land scams ramp up in 2022.

“Criminals are targeting vacant land because you don’t have to show it,” Parker said. “The possibility of running to the actual owner is slim to none.

“We’ve been able to help some of our victims get their land back into their own name. The unfortunate part is the persons that bought the land by wiring the funds for purchase are out the land (and the money),” Parker said.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office, which Greenleaf filed a report with, declined to speak with The News-Press / Naples Daily News.

But there are some basic precautions you can take, Parker said. Tell your neighbors to contact you if a for-sale sign goes up on your property unexpectedly; check listings for your area regularly; sign up for the risk alert service through your local Clerk of Courts website, and contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complspanint Center if you are scammed.

Parker also said if any real estate agents or buyers think they might be seeing signs of a scam, they can contact their local law enforcement.

One person recently contacted him who planned to buy a vacant lot they’d found listed on ZIllow.com as some details were making the buyer suspicious.

Parker examined the seller’s documents and immediately knew it was a fraud, he said. The driver’s license was a dead giveaway: it listed the seller’s height at 6 feet, 15 inches. 

How to avoid land or rental scams — FBI Boston division:

  • Do not wire funds to people you do not know.
  • Do not put money towards a house or apartment you have not seen.
  • Confirm the identity of the landlord by researching public records to find out who owns the property you are seeking to rent or purchase.
  • Do not fill out applications online until you have met directly with the property manager.
  • Know local rental prices.
  • Look for online reviews, references, and testimonials from past inhabitants.
  • Be wary if a potential tenant wants to rent property sight unseen.
  • Be wary if a potential renter says they are out of town and will send you a cashiers’ check.
  • Be wary if a potential landlord says he is out of the country and wants the rent sent to a foreign account.
  • Do not accept overpayment for properties. If you receive a check for more than the specified amount, return it. Do not deposit it.
  • If you find yourself the target or victim of a rental scam, stop all contact immediately, and if you have already sent money, it is extremely important to report any transfer of funds to your financial institution and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.


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