Every so often, I’ll get tipped about a listing in Dallas that seems too good to be true — a scam, some might say. Sometimes you get photos of the inside, and immediately understand why the Realtor or owner chose a bargain price.
Other times, you know immediately it’s a scam. And that’s what happened Friday when someone mentioned a three-bedroom, two-bath listing near Knox-Henderson that had been priced at $34,000.
Now, we’ve done this before, and by now most CandysDirt.com readers know we have zero reticence about engaging with folks that are probably up to no good. A few years ago we did just that when a property owner found her rental listing duplicated, with the new listing offering the house in Highland Park for a ridiculously low $1,000 a month.
Now, I’d love to send you to the actual listing, but after being alerted by the actual property owner (more on that in a minute), Zillow pulled the fraudulent listing down. However, knowing this would probably be the case, I grabbed screenshots.
The text of the listing promised a sweetheart deal from an owner who just wanted to get a nice first-time buyer into a home.
“Amazing home is available today, for a REDUCED CASH SALE of $34,000 to a first time buyer only! No realtors, no brokers, no third party, no WHOLESALERS, no investors, no agents, no attorneys involvement, besides our independent property agent and my neice, Karen. All particulars will go thru her and her company and she can be reached on the number below next to my name, as owner of this property, seven seven zero three seven four four zero eight five, which is the same number listed next to my name at the bottom of this listing. We are selling so inexpensively because we are part of a larger family, that sells a home once a year under fifty thousand to a first time buyer, regardless of what the home is worth, as a charitable give back and a way for someone to have the opportunity to purchase their first home.
If you want the home, 20 percent of asking price must be deposited cash into our independent escrow agent’s account, the day you call and say you want the home, along with signing of the contractual letter of intent, that would be sent to you first. This process is non negotiable and will be done on a first come first serve basis with time limits, so time is not wasted and home can get sold quickly. This is all because of the tenants there and that 48 hours notice must be given to them in order for anyone to see the inside. The 20 percent is refundable, if you do a walk thru after the 48 hours and no longer want the home, however, it is due even if you want to purchase home site unseen.
This is for a quick cash deal or owner financing, same price with no interest attached at 20 percent down and then $454 a month for 5 years. Tenants are there until September 2nd closing due to happen September 3rd They’ve purchased their own home already, so they are in the process of leaving now, but as some of their belongings are still there the 48 hours notice must be given. Contact Karen today, only if you are a first time buyer, are able to comply with everything today and have the 20 percent to immediately move forward. This is a great find and won’t last!”
What is truly remarkable about the someone or someones who put up this for sale by owner listing is that they took the time to look up the actual owner of the property on the Dallas Central Appraisal District website, and then put that name at the bottom of the ad.
Unfortunately for them, we know how to do reverse address searches. After doing a reverse address search on the Patolia Revocable Living Trust, we found that the Patel family lived there.
And those photos in the sale listing on Zillow? Pilfered from the Patels’ rental listing for the home on Trulia, where the rent is a far more realistic $1,495 a month.
Saturday morning, I talked to a frazzled sounding Mr. Patel (he got off the phone before I could get his first name because Zillow was on the other line). When I asked about the sale listing, he said, “Yeah, that’s a fraud listing.”
“They copied everything from my listing and put it for sale,” he said, adding that he kept checking Zillow to see if the listing had been pulled down.
While I couldn’t get confirmation as to exactly when the listing was pulled down (it was down Sunday evening when I checked again), it is likely that even if Patel hadn’t called, Zillow probably would’ve noticed the listing eventually.
“Zillow goes to great lengths to police activity and fully inform our users of the existence of scams and how to protect themselves,” a Zillow spokesperson told me Monday. “Our customer support team monitors activity on the site in a number of different ways and if a listing is found to be fraudulent, it is immediately removed from Zillow.”
But I was curious — if I called the number in the listing, what kind of sales pitch would I get? So, armed with the knowledge that Texas is a one-party consent state and I didn’t have to tell the person on the other end that I was recording, I set out to find out what kind of sales pitch I would get.
Turns out, a doozy. You can hear an edited (we took out the name of the “independent escrow agent” because we couldn’t verify it) version of the call here.
I asked for details regarding how the process to buy the home worked. The person on the other end of the phone went into great detail.
Alleged scammer: “The owner is basically doing some maintenance online too it, along with some maintenance in the property itself, so at this point, she’s kind of posted it for sale.
If the person still wanted to purchase, that would person would have to sign the contractual letter of intent, which would state that they intend to make the purchase of the property, per a walkthrough, and that the property actual closing date has been moved up from Sept. 3 to Sept. 10 due to the maintenance that is happening.
More importantly, if you sign the contractual letter of intent, you have provided the 20 percent, it would have to be deposited into our independent escrow agent’s account, Mr. ——-, and he banks with Woodforest.”
That would have to be deposited today. It’s still available, but the closing date has been moved to a week later due to the maintenance crew doing the last bit of checks.
In the contractual letter of intent, it does state that it’s fully refundable.”
Me: “So if I changed my mind on the ninth, you would send my money back?”
Alleged Scammer: “Right. Basically, if you do the deposit today, right, you sign the contractual letter of intent today, then within 48 hours I would meet with you at the property, we would do a walk-through, say for whatever reason you no longer want to move forward, right, you let us know, you’ll receive your funds back within 24 hours.
If you do however still want to move forward, then you must understand that the closing date has been changed from the third to the tenth. The balance – 80 percent – will be paid at closing, or the balance the 80 percent will be paid over five years owner financing, that’s $464 per month.”
Me: “Ok. I should be honest with you right now. I am actually a journalist.”
Alleged Scammer: Hangs up.
A reverse search on the number I dialed (the same one that is in the listing) originates in Marietta, Georgia, and to nobody named Karen. Woodforest National Bank has several branch locations in the U.S. including Dallas and well, several towns within 20 miles of Marietta. I was also able to locate someone by same name as the “independent escrow agent” whose hometown fits within the potential boundaries Marietta and the various branch locations would create.
Now, if you’re a longtime reader of CandysDirt.com, it’s likely that you already found all the red flags in this story (between the listing itself and my phone call), but let’s count some of them anyway, shall we?
- Letters of Intent (especially in this case) are not all that binding.
- No matter how many times you slap the word “contractually” in front of “letter of intent,” it doesn’t become more binding or more serious.
- Never send a wire transfer or bank draft to someone you’ve never met, before you actually see a house, and have done a ton more due diligence.
- You know who is good at due diligence? Realtors. Bounce from a listing where the owner refuses to let you use one.
- A cursory search of the MLS comparables shows that homes in the 2000 block of Cullen go for around $270,000 to $377,000 (and that one was a three-bedroom, two-bath home as well). You’re not likely to get a house of that size for $34,000 in Dallas unless you’re going to have to clear out critters and squatters.
In addition to those handy tips, I’d like to add one more for property owners out there that are listing their rentals on sites like Zillow, Trulia, or even Facebook and Craigslist: Watermark your photos.
It’s a simple step that can be done on the cheap that will reduce the likelihood that a would-be scammer will take your photos and use them. A watermark across the middle of the photo will make it impossible to crop it out as well. You can use Powerpoint, your iPhone, or even an app to watermark them for free. The phone number associated with your listing and your name would be a great watermark, because it virtually guarantees nobody will be able to use your photos.
“Zillow has a ‘Beware of Scams and Other Internet Fraud’ page on the site, telling users to look out for red flags like requests for wire transfers and long-distance inquiries, and directing them to our fraud and scams page, which provides valuable information about how to avoid fraudulent listings,” our friendly Zillow spokesperson added.
But most of all, if you’re out there looking for your first home — or even an investment property — it pays to know the comps and what homes go for. If it’s got an unrealistically low price, chances are it’s too good to be true.
Bethany Erickson is the education, consumer affairs, and public policy columnist for CandysDirt.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.