March is Fraud Prevention Month so could you tell me how consumers can avoid becoming victims of real estate-related fraud? (Part Two)
In last week’s column I discussed the dangers of mortgage fraud. Consumers who provide false or misleading information to a lender or allow themselves to act as a “straw buyer” for criminals may face serious consequences. But it’s also possible for an innocent homeowner to get stuck with a huge mortgage on their property or even wind up homeless if they are the victim of title fraud. That’s when a criminal uses phony documents to transfer ownership of a property to his or her name, and then either attempts to sell the property or applies for a mortgage. Identity theft scammers will often target elderly homeowners who paid off their mortgages long ago.
If you’re thinking about buying a property, you’re going to need a lawyer who is insured to practice real estate law in Ontario to close a transaction. Your lawyer can explain the merits of purchasing title insurance (which can protect you from title fraud, among other things), and will check a property’s title to confirm ownership.
Title fraud is one type of identity theft. To protect yourself from identity theft, you would be well advised to:
- Regularly review your credit card, bank and other financial statements for transactions that you haven’t authorized;
- Verify the information in your credit report (which you can obtain through Equifax Canada or TransUnion Canada) annually;
- Pay attention to your billing cycles, and contact a customer service rep if your bills don’t arrive on time;
- Never provide personal or financial information over the telephone, via email or online unless you initiated the conversation or know who contacted you;
- Destroy any financial documents before you throw them out; and
- Be very careful with your Social Insurance Number (SIN) because it’s a valuable piece of personal identification for criminals.
Showing photo ID is a common practice in Canada, so you shouldn’t worry if a real estate salesperson asks to see your driver’s licence before they allow you to tour an open house. Your SIN will only be requested in exceptional circumstances; for example, when a deposit has accumulated a sufficient amount of interest in a brokerage trust account and it needs to be reported to the Canada Revenue Agency.
If you suspect that you or somebody you know has been the victim of real estate fraud, contact RECO, your local law enforcement authority and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501.
If you have a question for Joe about the home buying or selling process, please email email@example.com.
Joseph Richer is Registrar of the Real Estate Council of Ontario (RECO). He is in charge of the administration and enforcement of all rules that govern real estate professionals in Ontario. You can find more tips at reco.on.ca, follow on Twitter @RECOhelps or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/RECOhelps.