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Warning on Property Transfer Fraud

Christopher South
Cape May County Clerk Rita Rothberg, left of screen, speaks to the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce at its February meeting. She was warning people about imposters attempting to sell property that belongs to someone else and how to protect yourself.

By Christopher South

County Clerk Outlines Service to Deter Scammers

The Cape May County Clerk’s Office is the place where property transfers are recorded, but it is also the place that can help protect residents from mortgage fraud.

Cape May County Clerk Rita Rothberg spoke to the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon Thursday, Feb.15, and introduced her office’s Property Alert Service.

Rothberg, who has worked in the county clerk’s office for 39 years, said she was surprised to hear about people impersonating a seller in a real estate transaction.

“Title fraud has been extremely rare, except now it seems to be on the rise … it’s happening a lot,” she said.

It’s happened enough that the Clerk’s Office has a property alert registration on its website. “Property and mortgage fraud,” the site says, “is a fast-growing crime in our country.”

The site goes on to say scammers record fraudulent documents, such as fake deeds, or record fake liens against property owners.

“In some cases, fraud on real property is not discovered for years,” the site says.

To address these problems and protect “one of your most important assets,” the Clerk’s Office offers a free service to notify property owners immediately via email whenever a document with the owner’s name is recorded. Property owners, and their agents, can sign up at  clerk.capemaycountynj.gov/PropertyAlert.

Rothberg explained how a scam might work, saying an imposter will impersonate a property owner and advertise the property for sale. She said sometimes a transaction can be done before it is discovered, and that if the transaction goes to closing, the title insurance company can be on the hook for the costs.

According to Rothberg, scammers tend to target the elderly, often people who have been “entitled” for a long time — that is, they went through the property title process. She said often the people will live permanently in another county, state or even country.

She said she has a friend who owns several properties in Middle Township. In the last month, her daughter noticed her properties for sale on Zillow, a tech real estate marketplace company. Rothberg said she had her deputy clerk call the number listed with the ad, and the person who answered claimed to be a caretaker who was handling the sale. Rothberg said local police and the Prosecutor’s Office became involved.

The clerk said that in May 2023, in Avalon, a property sale was listed between two individuals for $1.8 million. A week later an LLC was selling the same property to another LLC for $2.6 million. The Clerk’s Office received documents on June 1 with checks totaling $84,000 for real estate recording fees and real estate transfer tax fees.

Rothberg said her office records and advertises real estate settlements. She said in this case, the Avalon tax assessor called her office and inquired about the property sale. She said the new buyer used a local real estate broker who was working with a broker in Pennsylvania.

After the sale, the new “owner” even hired a local, well-respected contractor to demolish the garage. The actual owner, who lives most of the time in Pennsylvania, happened to be in town, heard some noise and investigated. The owner was extremely upset and called the police.

Rothberg said even if the sale goes through it could be determined invalid by a judge, but as in the Avalon case, the property owner can end up facing difficulties.

“Fortunately, I have gotten calls several times from someone who said, ‘I saw a notice of settlement. It’s not me. I am not selling my property,’” she said.

In the event of a suspected scam, Rothberg suggests notifying law enforcement and the title company involved.

She said her office carefully reviews documents, as do the title companies, and her office can generally find defects. She said with the sale of properties the parties must provide identification and signatures. In one case, she said, the names and addresses matched the seller.

“What I noticed was the difference in the signatures,” Rothberg said.

There was a previous record of a property transfer involving the sellers, and Rothberg was able to look up the signatures and compare them. She said she called the title company, located in Central Jersey, and asked, “Didn’t you vet these sellers?”

A representative from the title company asked her how she knew the signatures weren’t authentic, and she said she has them on file and could easily compare them.

“That’s the thing with these fraudulent sales, there are a lot of red flags,” Rothberg said, adding that she believes the Property Alert system will protect people and their property.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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