You’re ready to buy a new home, and you’re understandably excited. But be careful: Buying a home can also be a dangerous time. There are plenty of scammers out there eager to steal your money, hold your belongings hostage, or even claim title to an existing home.
All this might make you want to rent, but there are scams there, too. More on that later.
How common are real estate scams?
Real estate scams are far from a rarity, thanks in part to the large sums of money needed to purchase homes. This can make real estate scams and related crimes tempting and potentially lucrative.
Fortunately, you can avoid these scams by learning how they operate and how to identify some of the telltale signs. Here is a look at some of the more common scams, how they work and how you can avoid falling victim to them.
Scam No. 1: Escrow wire fraud
Most lenders require that you set up an escrow account when taking out a mortgage loan. Under such arrangements, you pay extra with each mortgage payment to cover the costs of your yearly property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. These extra dollars are then deposited in a non-interest-bearing escrow account.
When those bills come due, your lender dips into your escrow account to pay them on your behalf. Lenders require these accounts to make sure insurance and property taxes are paid on time and you don’t lose your home because you’ve forgotten to save for them.
Escrow arrangements, though, are also attractive targets for scammers. Scammers will call you, send you an email, or text you claiming that they are a representative of your title or escrow company. They’ll ask you to send the money you need to first open your escrow account to a bank account that they’ve created. When you do this, they’ll take your money and disappear.
How to avoid escrow wire fraud: It can be easy to fall for this scam, especially during the hectic days of closing a mortgage loan and buying a home. Scammers create email addresses or phone numbers that look almost the same as those used by your legitimate title or escrow company. If you do receive an email or text asking you to send your escrow money to a new account, take a close look: Make sure the email address or text number aren’t just a bit off.
Understand how your escrow arrangement works, too. If you get a message or phone call from someone claiming that the arrangement has changed, don’t act immediately. Instead, call your real estate agent, lender or title company to ask if the change is legitimate. If it’s not, don’t send any money.
And if you do fall for this scam and wire money to the account of a scammer? Call your bank or wire service immediately and request a halt on the transfer. If you act quickly enough, you might be able to stop the transaction from going through.
Scam No. 2: Foreclosure relief
If you're struggling to make your mortgage payments each month and worried that you might lose your home to foreclosure, you're probably looking for a financial lifeline. Don't let your desperation cause you to fall for scams, though.
In the foreclosure relief scam, con artists will contact homeowners who have missed mortgage payments and the lender may have begun foreclosure proceedings on the home. The scammer may promise these owners that they can help them save their home. They might promise, too, that they can reduce homeowners' monthly mortgage payments to a level that they can afford. They'll even point owners toward websites that look like they belong to legitimate companies.
The scam part? The scammers will often request an upfront payment for their services. And if you pay, they'll take your money and disappear without doing anything to help reduce your mortgage payments or save your home from foreclosure.
How to avoid a foreclosure-relief scam: The best way to avoid foreclosure relief scams is to only work directly with your mortgage lender when you are struggling to pay your mortgage. It might be an uncomfortable call to make, but you need to reach out to your lender.
Mortgage lenders don't want you to lose your home. They make their money when you make your payments. They might, then, be willing to work out a payment schedule that leaves you with a mortgage payment that you can afford.
They might also offer to extend the length of your mortgage loan or reduce your loan's interest rate, both of which could lower your monthly payment. Some lenders might allow you to take a brief break from paying your mortgage, what is known as a forebearance, though you'll still have to pay back your entire loan amount.
What should you do if a company calls you without you reaching out first and promises to help you avoid foreclosure? Hang up the phone. These companies can't do anything you can't do yourself by contacting your mortgage lender directly. And if a company tells you not to speak with your lender? That's a clear red flag.
The best way to avoid foreclosure is always to work directly with your lender, not an outside company.
Scam No. 3: Moving fraud
Moving from one home to your next is always stressful. Add moving fraud to the list, and your stress could likely skyrocket.
In a moving fraud scheme, your movers or moving company provide you an estimate for how much they'll charge to move your furniture, clothing, electronics, and other belongings to your new home. They might also require you to pay a deposit upfront.
Then once the movers drive up to your new home? They demand a higher price to unload your belongings. If you don't pay up, they threaten to leave with your items still in their truck.
How to avoid moving fraud: Before you hire a moving company, make sure it is a legitimate company and has all the proper insurance. Check online reviews and the Better Business Bureau for complaints. Make sure you understand all the charges your movers will levy and be sure that they send you a written estimate. And above all else, don't make any payments in advance. Only pay up once your truck is unloaded and your belongings are tucked away in your new home.
If you do encounter moving fraud, be sure to file a complaint. You can file one with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration if the fraud occurs across state lines. If the fraud occurs with an in-state move, file a complaint with your state agency, which you can find here.
Scam No. 4: Deed fraud
Deed fraud occurs when someone steals your identity, forges your name on a deed, and tries to claim title to your home. You might discover this fraud when you try to sell your home before you look for another.
Vacation homes, abandoned homes, or unoccupied homes are often the targets of deed fraud, but scammers sometimes target homes already occupied.
Two signs of possible deed fraud? You might receive notice for an unpaid water bill, tax bill, or mortgage bill, for instance. Or you might receive a notice of foreclosure on a property, even when you don’t have a mortgage.
How to avoid deed-fraud scams: It’s a good idea to monitor your credit reports. Look for financial actions taken in your name that are not familiar. You can request a free credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
It’s also possible to get credit monitoring, as well as title monitoring, through an identity theft protection service.
If you’d rather monitor your title by yourself, you may be able to access those records online through the local county recorder or other governmental agency that maintains property records in your state to confirm that no one has done anything affecting your property ownership.
You might also consider an owner’s title insurance policy, which can offer some protection against the harm caused by deed fraud.
Scam No. 5: Predatory lending
Your three-digit credit score is important when you're applying for a mortgage loan. The higher your score, the lower the interest rate lenders will charge for your loan. But what if you have a lower credit score or your credit reports are marred by missed or late payments? You can still qualify for a mortgage, but you'll need to look out for predatory lenders.
Predatory lenders prey on borrowers with lower credit scores, typically charging them sky-high interest rates on mortgage loans. These high rates can leave borrowers with monthly payments they can't afford. Homeowners then run the risk of losing their homes to foreclosure -- something that can happen if they start missing payments -- while the predatory lenders happily collect the profits that come from those higher interest rates.
How to avoid predatory-lending scams: Research current mortgage interest rates before applying for your mortgage. Remember, it's not unusual for lenders to charge borrowers with weaker credit higher-than-average interest rates. But lenders shouldn't charge you an interest rate that is excessively higher.
For instance, if Freddie Mac says that the average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is 3.8 percent and a lender quotes you an interest rate of 4.2 percent because of your weaker credit, that's not outrageous. But if a lender quotes you an interest rate of 8 percent or more? That's too high and a sign that you are likely dealing with a predatory lender.
Scam No. 6: Rental fraud
Ready to move to a new apartment? Be careful: You might end up paying for a rental that doesn't exist.
The rental scam is a popular one. In it, scammers create fake rental properties on listing sites, using photos and descriptions of a real home when creating their ad. These scammers ask interested parties to send a security deposit and their first month's rent through an electronic transfer. The con artists say they won't show the apartment or rental property until they receive this deposit, promising to refund the money if victims don't end up renting the home.
When victims send this money? You guessed it: The scammers take it and disappear, leaving would-be renters out of hundreds or thousands of dollars.
A 2018 survey from Apartment List found that 43.1 percent of renters said they had encountered a listing they believed was fraudulent, while 6.4 percent of renters lost money because of a rental scam.
How to avoid rental fraud: The best way to avoid this scam is to never send money to anyone who asks for a cash deposit before they'll show you an apartment. Legitimate property owners won't do this. They'll let you tour a property before asking for any cash. If someone insists that you send a deposit first? Find a different rental.