Real estate scam under investigation in bids to sell vacant land
In recent weeks, local police have documented nearly a dozen instances of a bizarre new real estate scam in which perpetrators impersonating local landowners contact area real estate agents and attempt to swiftly list and sell valuable vacant lots on Shelter Island and the North Fork.
To date, no one appears to have lost any money — or property — but interviews with real estate agents, landowners and law enforcement officials paint a picture of a brazen new scam that preys on a local real estate industry that has grown increasingly accustomed to online transactions.
“My thought was, ‘This is pretty scary,’ ” said longtime East End broker Theresa Eurell, who was initially drawn in by the fraudsters. “They’re only targeting vacant land. How clever is that? With vacant land, you don’t really need to meet the person because you have nothing to show, no tour of a house, you don’t have to give a [certificate of occupancy], you don’t have to give them a key.”
Local police said that all of the still-unsolved cases share the same hallmarks: the attempted sale of a vacant parcel at a below-market price; an urgency to close quickly; reluctance by the “seller” to communicate by phone; an unfamiliarity with the properties themselves or their histories.
The fraudsters also typically present copies of forged driver’s licenses, send emails created in the names of the real owners and, in nearly every case, use the online document-sharing platform DocuSign, which did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
“We’ve seen Airbnb and VRBO and different rental scams,” said Shelter Island Police Officer Andrew Graffagnino, who has led the investigation on the island. “But not in my recollection have we seen a potential [fraudulent] sale of a piece of property.”
He added that, although the investigation is ongoing, “it’s my suspicion that [the perpetrators are] at least out of state and probably out of the country.”
Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley agreed, saying the scam appears to be a byproduct of the real estate frenzy that has gripped the East End since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are so panicked about buying property and buying houses, and I think that urgency among some of the people buying plays to the scammers’ advantage,” Chief Flatley said.
Sometime in mid-March, too-good-to-be-true property listings suddenly began appearing on Shelter Island, catching local brokers off guard.
“The biggest problem in real estate right now is that there’s no inventory,” said Shelter Island agent Angelo Piccozzi. “So, all of the sudden — on Zillow and all these different sites — these land listings started popping up. To see seven land listings come up in the course of a couple weeks, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable.’ ”
The flurry of dream listings sent local brokers into overdrive, Mr. Piccozzi said.
“We all have spreadsheets of buyers looking to buy, so we all get on our phones,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, now there’s two, now there’s three, now there’s seven.”
One of those listings landed on the desk of veteran Shelter Island broker Penelope Moore who received a referral from an out-of-state agent that came through with a name, phone number and email. Ms. Moore was pleased to see that she knew the couple who appeared to be selling the lot: Sally Jacobs Baker and her husband, Warren Baker. She had toured their house once when they had considered selling it.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I know them,’” Ms. Moore said. “They’re very, very nice people. I hadn’t seen them in years, but I was thrilled to be working with them.” She then sent a DocuSign contract to the email she’d been given, which was quickly e-signed and emailed back to her. “I had an aerial shot of the lot because I’d listed something nearby, so we outlined [the property] and put it online pretty quickly.”
Even so, as she tried to reach Ms. Jacobs Baker by phone, she wondered to herself why they were suddenly selling a lot that had been in the family for decades. “I knew that they own the house next door. You never want to pry into people’s business, but I didn’t know why they would want to sell [the vacant land], because it’s been groomed, it’s been landscaped — it’s a lovely lot. They have a nice gate on it.”
She began to move forward with the transaction but, Ms. Moore said, “there were a bunch of red flags” that concerned her. She emailed to ask if the prospective seller had a survey of the property, and the answer — “no” — surprised her.
“I know that Sally and her husband are very meticulous people. They’re very careful people, so they wouldn’t put a fence in without getting a survey. It’s just not them. Why would they build a house next door and not get a survey?”
Ms. Moore finally got the ostensible seller on the line by saying she had a buyer with lots of questions who wanted to close fast. Her call was answered by a man she described as having a foreign accent.
“I said, ‘I know Sally’s a woman and her husband doesn’t have a foreign accent. This is not Sally. Who am I speaking to?’ ” she said, whereupon the man grew angry, yelled, “You don’t expect me to sound like a young boy — I’m 72 years old,’”and hung up.
A few minutes later, she said, he texted her back, said it had been a bad connection, and reiterated, “I’m not a young boy. I’m 72. I may sound like man.”
“I figured it was illegal at this point,” Ms. Moore said, “but I wanted to keep him going until we could get the police and the real owners involved.”
Ms. Moore said she looked up Mr. and Ms. Baker online and in a phone book and called their landlines. The couple, both retired Broadway stage managers, split their time between Shelter Island and New York City.
Even with all the red flags, Ms. Moore tried to sound casual when leaving voicemails.
“I didn’t want to make it sound like I was suspicious of anything, so I said, ‘I’d like to talk about our communications.’ And then if it wasn’t her, she’d call me back and say, ‘What communications?’ ”
“I got [Ms. Jacobs Baker] on the cell and said, ‘I just want to ask you some questions … like, did you list your lot with us?’
“She was like, ‘Whaaaaaat?’ ”
Ms. Jacobs Baker was shocked to learn that a sale had nearly gone through.
“The whole thing started on a Saturday,” she said. “[Ms. Moore] left a message on our home phone, and by the time she reached me on my cell it was Wednesday, and she was ready to finish a deal.
“It was shocking and nerve-wracking,” said Ms. Jacobs Baker.
Her husband agreed. “That someone would get your identity and try and impersonate you is scary,” he said.
Still, the couple maintained a healthy sense of humor about the ordeal.
Ms. Jacobs Baker joked that she took most offense at the bargain basement list price.
“The fact that they were underselling it — that’s what bothered me the most. That should have been a heads up,” she said.
”We’re on the water,” she added with mock outrage. “The price should have been higher.”
Around the same time, Ms. Eurell received numerous referrals for vacant lots through a real estate referral exchange platform.
“I think I got six imposters in two days,” she said. “I was contacted by phone by two of them. I asked to meet them and they said, ‘No, we’re not living in the area.’ The names and addresses they gave me matched up to the property records, and then they produced fake driver’s licenses that had the hologram and everything.”
Ms. Eurell said a man and woman with Hispanic accents contacted her for two separate properties.
“The male was my first contact,” she said. “He told me that he lived in Palm Beach Gardens [Fla.], and when I had done a little search, he did have an address in Palm Beach Gardens. He had multiple addresses, and this man pretty much told me all that. I was not far from Palm Beach Gardens when this was happening, and I asked to meet him. He said, ‘That’s not possible. I am traveling.”
She said the woman “was very soft spoken and very sweet. ‘Thank you for all your help. You’ve been wonderful.’ ” The woman even went as far as speaking to lawyers Ms. Eurell had recommended to handle the sale. “She told the lawyer she didn’t have the funds to pay her,” Ms. Eurell recalled, “but said she could take it out of the closing.”
What’s more, she said, “the texts going back and forth were not proper English. There was no punctuation and the words they were using didn’t make sense. That’s when I’d gone to my manager, and we started investigating.”
Ms. Eurell said she asked each of the clients for a copy of their driver’s license.
“It took them 24 hours to get back to us, and that’s when I knew there was something happening.”
Ms. Eurell said she was alarmed and a little disturbed as she pieced the whole thing together.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I have to be honest with you: If you were not a seasoned agent, this could have gone really, really bad.”
In an incident in Southold earlier this month, it nearly did.
Carol Szynaka, a real estate sales manager in Greenport, noticed an unusually promising property listing.
“First of all, the property was priced well below market in a very desirable location, so every agent who knows real estate was there” at the vacant lot, she said. “There were probably 20 people.”
Ms. Szynaka said one of her agents put in a client’s bid and was told she had an accepted offer, only to be informed a day later the property was being sold to another bidder.
“The whole thing sounded fishy to me, but this happens,” Ms. Szynaka said. “It’s a hot market.”
The same day, she got a call from John Hartung, a former client living in Florida, who had listed a property with Daniel Gale a decade earlier.
He had noticed earlier that day that his property was fraudulently listed on [the real estate portal] MLS.
“I was surprised beyond belief,” Mr. Hartung said. “But luckily, I saw it, and called people to investigate it.”
Ms. Szynaka looked into it for him, and learned what had happened.
“I called the listing broker and explained this and it really fell on deaf ears.” She said she also spoke to a manager at the Mt. Sinai-based brokerage, who told her, “We have a signed listing agreement and we are in contract.”
Ms. Szynaka called Mr. Hartung back and recommended that he call the brokerage directly.
“I felt like she would listen to him more than listen to me,” she said.
But Mr. Hartung said he didn’t have much luck either. “They didn’t seem to me that they were very professional,” he recalled from his home in Sarasota, Fla. “The salesperson, when I confronted them that this was my property and it wasn’t for sale and if she doesn’t stop selling it I’m going to get my attorney, she said something like, ‘Oh, s—.’ ”
Mr. Hartung said the individual he spoke to “wasn’t empathizing with me.”
“She said I have to prove to her with information” that he owned the property, he said. “I told her that she was possibly confused.” Mr. Hartung called the police.
A Southold Town police report dated April 15 recounts an officer’s subsequent conversation with Mt. Sinai listing agent Maryann Arceri, who, according to the report, “stated that a subject identified as Hartung wanted to sell the listed property and completed all the necessary documents to sell same. Arceri stated the property was under contract.”
The officer wrote that he “advised Arceri that fraudulent activity has taken place and it is in her best interest to stand by until our investigation is completed. Arceri was hesitant with same and believes she spoke with the real owner.”
Ms. Arceri confirmed the sequence of events but said that she believed she was dealing with the real John Hartung because the purported seller had produced a driver’s license that matched property records and he repeatedly spoke by phone with her and an attorney.
“I just can’t believe that it got this far,” she said this week. “Thank God we didn’t get to a real closing. It would have been a horror show.”
Ms. Arceri recounted her conversation with Mr. Hartung.
“When the real John called me, I said, ‘Really? Because I just hung up with John. Could you please give me some indication to prove ownership?’ Because at this point, the one I’ve got the contract with has already given me [a copy] of his driver’s license, and I even did a background check. Everything matched up. I had no reason to think it wasn’t him.”
Ms. Arceri said she was at a high school lacrosse game when the police called her. When she got off the phone, she immediately called the man she believed was her client to tell him about the police inquiry and demanded an explanation.
“He hung up on me,” she said.