How to Protect Yourself

real estate fraud
Consumer Protection

Part of this department’s mission is to provide selected consumer protection services. One area that is ripe for problems in that regard is real estate.

California’s booming real estate market has made real estate fraud and other related schemes more prevalent and consumers need to be on alert. Every year, unsuspecting individuals and businesses become caught in duplicitous and illegal activities pertaining to property or real estate transactions. They even pay for services from private companies when those same services are available for free from the County Assessor.

One of the services that the San Mateo County Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder – specifically the Recorder Division – provides is the examining and recording of all documents that deal with establishing ownership of real property or land in the county. The department also officially records other documents such as deeds of trust, reconveyances, liens and lien releases. These official transactions become part of the public record.

An important mission of the department is to balance the accessibility of these public records with safeguarding the confidentiality of those records to the maximum extent possible. While the Grantor-Grantee Index has been made available online for your convenience, you will note that the names of the property owners have been omitted from the files that you are researching. This has been done to protect the public from identity theft.

Types of Fraud

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the following are some examples of real estate fraud:

  • Home improvement scams, which involve real estate professionals getting loans in the name of fictitious borrowers or in the name of people unaware their identities are being used;
  • Equity fraud, which occurs when a person forges a property owner’s signature on a deed and equity in the property is stolen through loans taken against the targeted property;
  • Flipping, which involves the buying of property and the reselling of it at an inflated price based on fraudulent appraisal values;
  • Fraudulent loan origination, in which real estate professionals help unqualified buyers obtain funds for Federal Housing Authority (FHA) insured mortgages; and
  • Equity skimming, where an owner sells his property to a bogus buyer at a price well above its actual value.

To find out consumer protection information, visit U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Who is at Risk for Real Estate Fraud?

Coupled with the effects of identity theft, any individual can be a potential target for real estate fraud. However, law enforcement statistics have shown that the elderly and the more economically challenged are much more susceptible to fraud.  Below are some common warning signs of real estate fraud:

You receive official property documents indicating a transfer of property and you have no previous knowledge of the transaction;

You are missing a property tax bill (a missing tax bill can be the first sign of home equity fraud); and

You receive mortgage documents or payment books for loans you never applied for. This is also another common sign of equity fraud coupled with identity fraud.

How to Protect You, Your Family and Property from Fraud

Monitor your credit every four to six months to look for any fraudulent or unexplained activity. There are three major credit reporting agencies in this country: EquifaxExperian and Transunion. Better yet, you can obtain one free credit report every year from the annual credit report website.

You can also check the San Mateo County Recorder online Grantor/Grantee Index to check for recorded transactions that may affect ownership of your property.

Search the online Grantor/Grantee Index

How to Report Suspected Fraud

Immediately contact your local police department if:

  • You receive property documents you have no knowledge of or if the information on the document(s) has been altered after you signed it;
  • You didn’t sign the document(s) or believe the person signing the document(s) was incompetent or deceased at the time of the signing; 
  • You didn’t sell, borrow or make a gift transfer of property to anyone; or
  • You believe a fraud or misrepresentation has occurred in a transaction where you were involved.

The Office of the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit prosecutes unfair business practices. The unit reviews and/or investigates complaints involving misrepresentations and deceptive practices in connection with the sale or advertisement of goods and services.

If you feel that you have been affected or have information by such practices, please file a complaint by downloading a consumer complaint form from the Consumer & Environmental Protection Unit.

You May Be Able to Obtain Help from These Sources:

California Department of Real Estate

San Mateo County Economic Development Association

California Association of Realtors

San Mateo County Association of Realtors

To report suspected economic abuse of the elderly or dependent adults, immediately call:

  • 650.573.3900 T
  • 800.675.8437 (Voice)
  • 800.994.6166 (TDD)

You can also go online to:

San Mateo County Health Department/Aging and Adult Services Section