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Scammers hit the white-hot Summit County real estate market

Ben Lasseter/KPCW
After a fraudulent real estate transaction bilked more than half a million dollars from an unsuspecting buyer, someone tried a similar fake sale in Promontory; that one was thwarted.

The Park City Board of Realtors office was rocked when a fraudulent property sale went through and another one was attempted in the last week.

The ‘for sale by owner’ lot in the Aerie neighborhood was listed on Zillow. The price was about half of what the property is worth. The sale closed, the deed was recorded and the buyer is now out several hundred thousand dollars.

That’s because the seller, who pocketed the money, didn’t actually own the property.

CEO of the Park City Board of Realtors Jamie Johnson said it’s happening across the country.

“Right now, in our market and actually across the country, we are seeing individuals who don't use a real estate agent that end up in fraudulent deals,” Johnson said. “That's a rampant issue that's going on right now. And we've had even here locally some individuals who are trying to pose as a seller and have tried to sell a property that it's not theirs. So, if you're not using a local professional or working with title companies or individuals that you know and trust, it could be a very ugly scene for you.”

While Johnson recommends using a licensed real estate agent, in this case the buyers did. The transaction also went through a local title company – which protects property owners and lenders against any loss or damage they might experience because of liens, or defects in the title.

Johnson said the case highlighted a reliable old adage.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true.”

As to how something like this can happen, Johnson said law enforcement, including the FBI, has been contacted. FBI Public Affairs Specialist Sandra Barker told KPCW the FBI doesn’t confirm or deny if they are investigating certain cases.

Keller Williams CEO Michelle Parker said it’s critical that those involved in real estate transactions check the identities of the parties involved and make sure there is a person behind the name and address. It’s also critical that the parties meet in person or video teleconference to ensure the transaction is credible.

“Buyers, in this case, should be using agents so that they can get the ID check and meet them (sellers) in person,” Parker said. “Because if people are just doing deals, you know, on their own and writing up contracts, they may not have the background checks and broker support from an insurance perspective. So, you know, going through an agency and a Realtor® is very important, in this case, to have to have backing and support.”

A second fraud case – this one a vacant lot in Promontory - was thwarted this week. It too was a ‘for sale by owner’ listing.

“There was a situation where someone called a Realtor® said that they wanted to list a lot in Promontory,” Johnson said. “And the real estate agent was suspicious after we had sent out notifications to our members saying that this was going on in the area. And we started doing a little bit of work on that and found that the owner actually owned the property next door as well. They contacted the real owner, and they said, no, we are not attempting to sell our property. This is not true.”

Johnson said agents and the public need to be aware and title companies need to pay attention too. She said it may be necessary to enact legislation to prevent similar circumstances in the future.