Whenever the housing market starts to heat up, so does mortgage and real estate fraud. Buyers rush through deals to avoid losing out, but can end up being scammed if they're not careful.
While there are no statistics on these types of fraud in Canada, in the United States, it is estimated to cost victims between $4-billion and $6-billion (U.S.) a year.
"Mortgage scams are carried out in all different forms and involve a multitude of people, some who don't even know they're being taken advantage of," says Diane Scott, president of the Calgary Real Estate Board.
Ms. Scott says at least two types of mortgage fraud have occurred in Calgary this year. One is property flipping, in which a dishonest seller artificially inflates the value of a property using a phony appraisal and then sells it for a large profit. The phony appraisal often remains with the property through multiple transactions, making it difficult to determine the property's true worth, and the end buyer is left paying for a mortgage that is much higher than the home's value.
The other involves "straw buyers," who are offered money to lend their identity and good credit record for use on fraudulent mortgage applications. The fraudster uses the information to apply for a loan, then disappears with the money, leaving the straw buyer on the hook for the mortgage payments.
Other types of real estate scams include title fraud, where your identity is stolen and used to assume the title of your property, which can then be used to sell your home or get a new mortgage. The criminal takes the mortgage money and runs. You may not even find out about the fraud until the lender contacts you or someone pulls up in a moving van, claiming to be the new owner of the house.
And there's also foreclosure fraud, in which a homeowner having trouble paying a mortgage is offered a loan in exchange for up-front fees and an agreement to transfer the property title to the scammer, who is then able to take the victim's loan payments, sell the house or remortgage it and leave with the money.
While a lawyer, realtor or licensed mortgage broker can help ensure all legal precautions are taken, it's still important to do your homework before you buy, Ms. Scott says. Here's her advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud:
1. Beware of unusual offers. Never lend your identity to anyone or sign documents you do not fully understand. "If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is," Ms. Scott says.
2. Do the math. Look at the listing history on the property and do a comparative market analysis. Check the number of sales and price ranges for the community. If the home's listing price is much higher than the average value of neighbouring homes, it could mean someone is flipping the property or has had it fraudulently appraised.
3. Don't assume the seller is honest. Get your own realtor or independent representation for your purchase. If the seller objects, something is wrong.
4. Do a land title search. This will show the name of the property owner, any mortgages or liens registered on the title, as well as previous sales and transfers. You can also buy title insurance to protect against title fraud.
5. Get your own appraisal. You may want to include, as part of your offer to purchase, the option to have the property appraised by a member of the Appraisal Institute of Canada.
6. Secure your deposit. Make sure your money is being held in a real estate trust account by a realtor or lawyer. This will ensure your money is safe until the deal closes.