Joanne Wickersham was surprised when strangers stopped by her northeast Fresno home on a recent Sunday and said they hoped to get a look at it because they were considering buying it.
Wickersham’s surprise turned to alarm, because those visits led to her discovery that the home that she and her husband bought in 2021 for $800,000 had been fraudulently listed on Zillow for $22,000.
According to Wickersham’s post on NextDoor, the Zillow listing used the photos posted by the former owner in 2021 and said the current owners were taking a huge tax write-off to sell the home for only $22,000 as an act of charity. But the home would only be available to first-time homebuyers who were required to sign a contract without second-party representation such as a lawyer or Realtor and to deposit $2,000 in Zelle or Venmo “to some gal named Mindi,” Wickersham said on NextDoor.
Fortunately, the two prospective buyers had not sent any money, and Wickersham said the listing came down after she brought it to the attention of her broker and Zillow.
But she’s concerned that there might be other prospective buyers who have followed the listing’s directions about not contacting the seller or showing up to look at the home before a May 5 walk-through, and who might have already wired a $2,000 deposit to the scammers.
“Here’s our fear … that on May 5th we get all sorts of people who show up that have sent in their 2000.00 only to find out they’ve been scammed but think that we are the scammers and get all pissed off and feisty,” she wrote on NextDoor. “Has anyone ever experienced anything like this? We are really disturbed and concerned about what May 5th would look like.”
A Google search uncovered news articles about similar listings around the country — a $2.3 million home in Jacksonville, Florida in June 2022, a four-bedroom, five-bathroom Memphis area home in October 2022, a $1.3 million home in Raleigh, North Carolina — that used similar scripts: The home was being sold at a huge discount but only to first-time homebuyers who must wire a $2,000 deposit.
Brian Domingos Jr., board president of the Fresno Association of Realtors, said he had heard previously of similar scams involving rental properties in the Fresno area, but not a scam involving a home sale before now.
The scammers are preying on some of the community’s most vulnerable members who are desperate to find affordable housing, either rental or to own, but have been unsuccessful after making multiple bids, Domingos said.
How to Protect Yourself
One of the best safeguards against homebuying fraud is to employ the services of a licensed Realtor or real estate agent when reviewing home listings, he said.
A Zillow spokesperson did not respond directly to GV Wire’s questions about whether the Seattle-based company employs artificial intelligence or humans to screen listings for fraud, or whether Zillow has worked with law enforcement to identify scammers so they can face prosecution.
The spokesperson emailed this statement: “Zillow strives to provide a safe online platform, and we go to great lengths to monitor activity and fully inform our users of how to protect themselves from scams online and offline. Our teams use several different tools to prevent inappropriate content from publishing, actively screening for suspicious content and preventing it from getting posted, and if a listing is found to be fraudulent, it is removed from our site as quickly as possible. Our ‘Beware of scams and other internet fraud’ page provides valuable information on how to spot and avoid red flags like requests for wire transfers or long-distance inquiries.”
One way for homeowners to protect themselves is to register with Zillow and claim their home. The claim can be released later if the home is sold.
File a Police Report
And, if you do find that you’re the victim of a scam, file a police report, as the Wickershams did.
Fresno Police Lt. Bill Dooley confirmed that the couple filed an identity theft report outlining the details of the scam, including that the alleged “contract” contained Joseph Wickersham’s forged signature.
At this point, the case has been closed to investigation, but it will be reopened if any victims come forward to report that they paid a deposit and have been swindled, Dooley said.
Wickersham said she posted on NextDoor about her situation as a cautionary tale to other homeowners: “I just wanted to notify our neighbors that this could happen to anybody … and to warn folks that if a deal sounds too good to be true it’s probably not true.”