Vigilance Against Real Estate Fraud: A Critical Reminder for the St. Louis Market

In the ever-evolving landscape of real estate transactions, the threat of fraud has become increasingly sophisticated and pervasive. Recent alerts from Westcor and other title insurance underwriters highlight a worrying trend in real estate fraud, impacting not just foreign-owned unimproved lots but also residential and commercial properties across the board. As a leading voice in the St. Louis real estate market, it’s crucial to address these concerns and reinforce the importance of vigilance among our agents and clients.

The Escalating Threat of Real Estate Fraud

  • Seller Impersonation: No longer confined to foreign-owned, unimproved land, fraudsters are now targeting all types of properties, including those with owner-occupied homes and commercial entities. This form of deception involves impersonating the property owner to illegally sell the property.
  • Earnest Money Fraud: A newer tactic involves the fraudster acting as both the buyer and seller, using counterfeit checks for earnest money deposits. These checks, often drawn from foreign banks, are for amounts higher than typical in a purchase agreement. The scam unfolds as the fraudster cancels the deal before the check clears, demanding a wire transfer refund of the deposit.
  • Fraudulent Contract Assignments: In some cases, a fraudulent buyer assigns their contract to an unsuspecting third party. This complex scam involves posting online listings for properties that aren’t actually for sale, leading to conflicting demands on escrow deposits and creating a dilemma for title agents.

Red Flags and Preventative Measures
To safeguard against these scams, it’s essential to recognize potential red flags:

  • Unusual Communication Patterns: Be wary of sellers who avoid in-person meetings or insist on communicating only via phone, text, or email.
  • Inconsistencies in Identity: Pay attention to discrepancies like accents not matching the owner’s name, inability to answer property-specific questions, or documents signed or notarized in unexpected locations.
  • Urgency and Aggression: A seller in a hurry or who becomes belligerent when asked for verification is a potential red flag.
  • Suspicious Financial Requests: Be cautious of sellers requesting fund transfers to foreign bank accounts or presenting foreign checks, especially for amounts exceeding typical earnest money.

Best Practices for Real Estate Professionals

  • Verification: Always verify the identity of all parties involved in a transaction. Utilize state websites for license authenticity checks and refer to resources like the European Union’s PRADO website for passport verifications.
  • Payment Methods: Avoid accepting foreign checks. Instead, insist on wired funds for transactions.
  • Legal Consultation: In cases of uncertainty, seek advice from a licensed real estate attorney, especially regarding escrow arrangements.
  • Reporting: If you encounter fraudulent activities, report them immediately to the relevant authorities, including providing copies of fraudulent identification and documents.

Staying Informed and Prepared

For more detailed information on these scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s guide on fake check scams and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s resources on title and escrow fraud.


The real estate industry in St. Louis, like many others, is not immune to the threat of fraud. It’s imperative that we, as professionals, remain vigilant, informed, and proactive in our efforts to protect our clients and ourselves from these deceptive practices. By staying aware and adhering to best practices, we can continue to uphold the integrity and security of real estate transactions in our region.

This article aims to educate and alert the St. Louis real estate community about the increasing sophistication of fraud in the industry, emphasizing the importance of vigilance and adherence to best practices to safeguard against these threats.

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