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  • Bangor Daily News

    Scammers are trying to sell Mainers’ land without their knowledge

    By Zara Norman,

    2024-06-05
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    Over Memorial Day weekend, Brian Beneski got a notification that the 50 acres he and his wife plan to retire on in Frenchville had gone up for sale.

    The problem? They weren’t selling.

    “Originally, we thought the company we bought it from made a mistake or something,” said Beneski, a 57-year-old state worker from Gardiner. “It turned out to be the listing of another agent. He had gone up and taken fresh drone pictures of it and everything.”

    The Beneskis nearly fell victim to deed fraud : an increasingly common real estate scam plaguing landowners in polar ends of Maine and across the country. It consists of so-called title pirates using forged deeds and identification documents to dupe real estate agents into selling other people’s vacant land, often at below market rates and in cash.

    Most attention around deed fraud in Maine has been focused on York County , where 12 separate instances had been reported to the county sheriff’s office as of March. But Mainers with land in more rural areas like the Beneskis are being targeted, too.

    Two of the seven complaints of deed fraud received by Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office since 2014 took place in New Sweden and Lubec, according to a spokesperson. A recent news release from the Maine Association of Realtors identified plots in Sanford and Madawaska as the most recent locations where fraud occurred. It has picked up in the past year.

    “It’s a real issue,” Paul McKee, president of the Maine affiliate of the National Association of Realtors, said.

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    The Beneskis were able to contact the agency behind the listing, Caribou-based Progressive Realty, to get it removed within 24 hours. Because they had only bought their land a couple of years ago, Brian Beneski said his wife, Molly, still had notifications set up alerting them to local listings and saw the land for sale immediately. No funds were ever transferred to the fraudster.

    The couple is still gravely concerned as to how they were scammed. They notified both the FBI and the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office of the fraud and filed a complaint with the Maine attorney general’s office. But there is little recourse for them.

    “I called the sheriff and they were like, this is probably somebody from out of the country. It’s just another one of these cases of computer fraud,” Brian Beneski said. “I don’t know if [the scammer] may or may not have things like my date of birth or social security number.”

    It’s not just landowners, whose property is sold out from under them with neither permission nor compensation, who are cheated under this scheme. The buyer has no actual claim to the land they purchased. Agents who list the property are not compensated for the time or money they expended in doing so.

    “It was just a nightmare,” said Cathy Duffy, broker-owner of Progressive Realty, the firm that unwittingly listed the property. “It’s happening all over Maine and across the country. The scammers are very savvy and they know what they’re doing.”

    Duffy said her agency performed its due diligence and got what brokers thought was the necessary identification from the seller.

    “This guy was good,” she said.

    Though a bill this past legislative session took up the issue of deed fraud, the only result was to commission a study into the issue. McKee’s group has been circulating educational material for realtors on how to identify potential scams and avoid fraudulent sales.

    A newsletter recently circulated to all Maine agents in the group, shared by McKee, warns against “red flags” around vacant land sales including low-priced or cash deals, a rush to close, a refusal to attend closing and suspicious wire instructions. The newsletter also cautioned against sellers who only communicate via text or email, as Beneski said the person who scammed him did.

    “It’s all about everyone doing their due diligence. Realtors, title companies, owners, all of us are players,” McKee said. “Know who you’re working with.”

    An online advisory from the FBI published last week echoes that guidance, suggesting agents avoid remote closings when possible and ask for in-person identity checks. If that’s not possible, they should ask for video proof of life. That might be difficult, as often the landowners being targeted don’t live on their land.

    “Maine is full of people with vacation homes, or family property, you can definitely see how something like this could happen up here,” Brian Beneski said. “If we didn’t happen to see the listing, I don’t know how we would ever have found out about it.”

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