Vacant Land Fraud: A Growing Threat and How to Protect Yourself

Vacant Land Fraud: A Growing Threat and How to Protect Yourself


Vacant land fraud is a serious and concerning issue plaguing New Jersey and other parts of the country, as reported by the FBI's Newark field office. Special Agents Joe Cardosi and Joe Sullivan warn that unsuspecting landowners are losing their property to imposters posing as the rightful owners.

Here's how the scam unfolds:

  • Targeting Realtors: Criminals send solicitations to real estate agents, often advertising vacant lots in rural areas.

  • Fake Seller, Real Deal: The fraudsters present themselves as the owner and push for a quick, all-cash sale, bypassing the usual scrutiny of a traditional transaction.

  • Oblivious Owner: The real owner remains completely unaware of the scheme until they stumble upon a "for sale" sign on their land, receive an unexpected property tax notification, or encounter other red flags.


The Scope of the Problem

The FBI acknowledges the difficulty in stopping these scams. Cardosi explains, "These bad actors are able to use electronic communications to convince everyone involved that they're the rightful owner." They create fake IDs, documents, and even notary stamps to appear legitimate.

The losses can be substantial. Cardosi highlights an instance where a single solicitation went out over 60 times, targeting multiple realtors. Even a small success rate can net fraudsters significant sums.


Why Vacant Land is Vulnerable

Several factors contribute to vacant land's vulnerability to fraud:

  • Remote and Unoccupied: Vacant land is often unattended, making it difficult to verify ownership through physical inspection.

  • All-Cash Deals: The absence of financing reduces the number of parties involved in the transaction, creating fewer opportunities to detect inconsistencies.

  • Shifting Business Practices: The rise of remote transactions due to COVID-19 makes it easier for scammers to operate virtually.


Red Flags for Real Estate Professionals

Cardosi and Sullivan emphasize the importance of recognizing suspicious behavior:

  • Unrealistic Offers: The seller is eager to sell quickly, even at a below-market price.

  • Urgency for Closure: The seller pushes for a fast turnaround and provides excuses for not meeting in person.

  • Remote Communication: The seller prefers to conduct business online and avoids video calls or in-person meetings.


How Law Enforcement is Involved

The FBI, along with local law enforcement, are actively involved in combating this fraud. They receive reports from suspicious realtors, title companies, and even unwitting buyers caught in the scam. While intervention can stop the transaction in progress, recovering stolen land for the rightful owner can be a complex legal battle.

Adapting Tactics, Expanding Targets

As awareness of vacant land fraud grows, criminals are shifting their focus. Special Agent Sullivan warns that abandoned properties and rental homes are becoming new targets.

How to Protect Yourself


  • Set Up Alerts: Monitor your property with title alerts and online search tools.

  • Maintain Visibility: Regularly check on your land or hire a management company.

  • Build Relationships: Connect with neighbors who can keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

  • Consider Escrow: Pay property taxes through escrow for an extra layer of security.

  • Inquire with Local Law Enforcement: See if your local police department offers vacant property monitoring programs.

Real Estate Professionals:

  • Prioritize In-Person Meetings: Whenever possible, conduct closings and verify identities in person.

  • Verify Documentation: Require a copy of the seller's ID, recent tax bill, and other relevant documents.

  • Scrutinize Communication: Be cautious of international calls, suspicious email addresses, and inconsistent information.

  • Confirm Everything: Send certified letters to the seller's address and verify the notary's identity.

  • Spread Awareness: Educate colleagues and industry professionals about the scam.


How to Report Vacant Land Fraud

If you suspect you've been targeted by vacant land fraud, act quickly! The FBI can help stop wire transfers and recover funds within 72 hours. Here's how to report it:

  • FBI Los Angeles Field Office: Call (310) 477-6565.

  • Online Reporting: Submit a complaint online at FBI Tips.

  • Internet Crime Complaint Center: Report the crime at IC3, the FBI's online portal.


By following these tips and staying informed, we can work together to stop vacant land fraud and protect our valuable property investments.

By following these precautions and staying informed, we can work together to prevent vacant land fraud and protect valuable property investments.




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