person in a mask inside a dark room

Attention: Sir/Madam… I’d Like to Scam You

Many people have heard of the “419” scams. The term “419” comes from the Nigerian penal code section of that designation that deals with fraud. Despite a widespread belief that the people who get taken by these scams are greedy and stupid, many are not so. Many believe they are donating to distressed individuals and/or charities. These scams have spread into real estate as well, targeting house sellers and real estate agents.


The scam usually opens with a bait letter, assuring the recipient that the person contacting them is a) a widow whose husband left her millions that she cannot safely access due to her evil family, b) a high-ranking military official seeking to move money out of the control of their oppressive governmental regime, c) a representative of a mysterious person high up in the government, or d) a person interested in an item that the person is selling or representing.


If the target responds to the letter, the scammer usually replies with thanks and asks for personal information. Often this includes a bank account number, but this is not, as some people think, how the target is scammed. It is used as a gauge to determine if the target is likely to give money in order to pay “processing fees” or other mysterious charges. Scammers will also provide scans of documents that look legitimate. Many can be – stolen from other people or digitally altered. If called on discrepancies, the scammer will blame poor computer equipment.


In nearly all these scams, urgency and confidentiality are emphasized. The scammer doesn’t want their victim to seek outside aid or take time to think things over. They are depending on the “get it now or you never will!” feeling to encourage the victim to send the money – usually through Western Union or some other money wire transfer company. Once the money is picked up, the person who sent it has no way to get it back.


An example of a real estate related scam:


You get an unsolicited email from someone claiming to be interested in your house. They will send you a large check, many thousands of dollars over the amount you are asking for the property. They then want you to refund the extra money. Or they say that there are “fees” that the seller must pay in their country. In any case, you have to send the money now, Now, NOW because the person interested in your house needs the money to a) come to America b) pay for their cancer operation or c) take their sick mother to the hospital. Sometimes, if you balk at sending a complete stranger thousands of dollars, they may threaten you with “legal action” or embroider the sob story to the point where their sick mother is suffering from cancer, AIDS, measles and ingrown toenails all at the same time.


Real estate transactions are only one of the targets of scammers. The scammer is not interested in your house; s/he only is interested in the money you can send to finance whatever spurious fees are claimed to be involved with the transaction. Don’t send anyone any money or cash checks that are sent to you from an unverified institution or individual. Consult with a real estate professional for advice on how to handle offers via the Internet. Since many people use the Internet to inquire about houses, prices, etc., an email query may be legitimate. Just make sure that the person is legitimate before pursuing a financial transaction.

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