Avoiding Real Estate Scams

Tim Ford  |   Monday Apr. 1st, 2024

Winter in Bozeman has been keeping everyone on their toes. It started out mild, but as of late has come roaring back. Speaking of staying on one’s toes, the public should remain alert to scams in all areas, especially when going through a real estate transaction.

The first big real estate scam to be aware of is wire fraud. Incidents of wire fraud in real estate transactions have been increasing nationwide, and have occurred in Bozeman. Criminals hack into the email accounts of real estate agents, title companies, and lenders. They will then email the buyer, pretending in the email to be the either the real estate agent, lender, or title person, and give the buyer wiring instructions for the buyer to send in either their earnest money or, potentially, their down payment.

The unsuspecting buyer, knowing their closing is coming up, schedules the wire of their down payment or earnest money, but instead of sending it to the title company, they unwittingly wire the funds to the criminals. If the funds cannot be recovered, the buyer often loses those funds. Multiple cases of this scam have happened in Bozeman, with some unfortunate buyers losing out on tens of thousands of dollars they were hoping to use for the down payment on their new home.

To avoid this scam, the first choice would be to use a cashier’s check to bring down payment funds to closing. If this is not possible, any wire instructions should be independently verified over the phone through a trusted source. Also, any unexpected emails regarding wire instructions, or any emails purporting a change in wire instructions should be viewed with extreme suspicion and verified over the phone through a trusted source.

Another scam that has taken place in Montana involves vacant land. Criminals will pose as the owner of a vacant piece of property, generally one that does not have a mortgage or debt owed on it. The criminal will contact a real estate agent over the phone, stating they want to list and sell their property, pricing it for a quick sale. They will quickly accept an offer, especially if it’s cash, often below market value. The fraudster will use remote notary signings and will provide forged documents to the real estate agents and title companies. The title company then unknowingly sends the proceeds of the sale to the criminal. Fraudulent listings of land listed for sale on websites like Zillow, and even the MLS, have occurred in Bozeman. Scammers may also pose as For Sale By Owners, in hopes of securing earnest money deposits from unsuspecting buyers.

Owners of vacant land should keep an eye out for listings of similar properties in their area. This is even more important if the vacant land is free of mortgages or other liens. Anytime a transaction involves a vacant piece of property without a lien, all parties involved should be wary and vigilant.

A third scam is rentals, and related security deposits. In this scam, fraudsters post properties for rent with the hopes of unsuspecting tenants sending in security deposits. We have even seen scammers copy for-sale listings of vacant homes into for-rent postings, knowing that the home is vacant, and telling potential renters to go look at the home. Tenants really need to remain vigilant and double check that they are sending security deposits to the actual property owner or manager.

As usual, I have included home sale data. In addition to the 81 homes sold during the first two months of this year, another 79 homes are currently pending, or are under contract, as of the date of this writing.

The included data reflects sales of single family homes in the greater Bozeman area, including Four Corners, Gallatin Gateway, Bridger Canyon, and Bozeman city limits. The data includes home sales reported through the local Big Sky Country MLS, and does not include private party sales, condominiums, or townhouses.  

About the Author(s)