Couple narrowly avoids property scam on island


How would you feel if you owned a piece of property on the Vero island, were moving ahead with plans to build your dream retirement home, then found scammers were trying to sell your lot out from under you at a bargain price?

“The main feeling was disbelief,” said Rhode Island resident Craig Kaspark.

Thanks to a suspicious real estate agent and watchful South Beach neighbors, the scam was thwarted before any financial damage was done, but other similar scams have succeeded here.

“It’s scary. It really is,” said Indian River County Property Appraiser Wesley Davis, whose office keeps a list of notaries involved in property fraud and who has “a life-long family friend” who was scammed when they bought a lot from a fraudster posing as the owner of the land.

“It is really bad,” added Gigi Williams, a deputy property appraiser in Davis’s office who reviews documents related to real estate transactions. “I have a thick file of attempts targeting people who live out of state or out of country, trying to steal their property.”

Kaspark and his wife, Marcia Kaspark, bought the lot for their dream home in the Silver Sands subdivision in 2013, with plans to make the move from Providence, Rhode Island, sooner rather than later.

Health and work issues intervened, and the move was postponed but not forgotten. Craig Kaspark, a librarian, retired in 2022 and the couple hired an architect and general contractor and applied for building permits in recent months, gearing up to finally leave winter behind and enjoy seaside living in Vero Beach.

“We are both in our 70s, now, and we are gung-ho about the move, really looking forward to it,” Kaspark told Vero Beach 32963 last week.

The first hint that their plans might be threatened came on March 4, when Marcia Kaspark picked up the phone as she was racing out of the house for an appointment.

Someone who said they were a realtor in Vero Beach asked if their lot at 2255 Silver Sands Court was for sale. When Maricia said no, the caller said, “I thought it was a scam.”

In a hurry and not sure what to make of the call, Marcia hung up and rushed off to her appointment.

The next red flag was more distinct.

“On March 8, we got an email from a neighbor who lives across the street from our lot,” said Craig Kaspark. “She said, ‘I just ran into your realtor, and I understand you want to sell your lot. I am very sorry we won’t have you as neighbors, but if you are selling I would be very interested [in purchasing the property].”

Shortly afterward, the Kasparks got a phone call from another neighbor interested in the lot.

By that time, the .31-acre lot 200 feet from the beach that had sat vacant for a decade on a quiet south island lane was listed for sale on a dozen websites for $550,000, priced at least $200,000 below its likely market value to get a quick sale.

It was a textbook example of a fast-growing type of real estate fraud.

“First, scammers use public records to identify properties free of mortgages or other liens, often vacant lots or rental properties,” Forbes reports. “The public records also identify the current landowner. Scammers then use the information they found to pose as the property owners and contact a real estate agent to list the property. The scammers typically never meet with the agent in person, instead communicating solely through email or other electronic means.

“The property is then listed for below market value, a tactic to spark immediate interest.

When potential buyers make an offer, the scammer quickly accepts, and the impostor makes it clear that all-cash deals are preferred.”

Last year, the Secret Service issued an advisory “warning consumers of … [a] sharp increase in seller impersonation fraud,” according to Forbes.

In February, reported that “cybercrime rings have taken aim at U.S. real estate transactions at an alarming rate.”

The article went on to note that a recent survey found, “10% of U.S. homebuyers and sellers were targeted for real estate fraud [in 2023] and 5% had losses during their real estate transaction due to fraud,” with real estate fraud losses of all types exceeding $446 million.

In the Silver Sands case, the scammer reached out first to ONE Sotheby’s International Realty agent Kelly Fischer, the realtor who first called the Kasparks.

“I got a phone call from a person claiming to be the owner of the property but something about the phone number and the way they approached me made my Spidey sense tingle,” Fischer said.

When she dug deeper, checking the phone number online and through a realtor fraud prevention app, her suspicions grew, and she tracked down the Kasparks to check with them.

Thwarted by Fischer, the scammer contacted Margo Sudnykovych at Vero Beach Rent, LLC and duped her with photos of two fake Rhode Island driver licenses.

“The licenses looked very real, with our names and other information, but pictures of two other people,” Craig Kaspark said.

Those driver license photos turned out to be the scammer’s Achilles heel.

“I was in the car, talking to another neighbor when Margo walked over from the lot,” said Shelley Caldwell, the neighbor across the street who emailed the Kasparks. “She said she was listing the lot and wanted to find out about the HOA dues. I told her the owners couldn’t be listing because they had just surveyed the property and were in for permits – so that would have been a very sudden change of course.

“She told me that Craig had cancer and that was the reason” – a lie the scammer told Sudnykovych to create a sense of urgency and explain the low listing price.

After learning from the Kasparks that the lot was not being sold, Caldwell contacted Sudnykovych to alert her about the scam, but Sudnykovych said she thought the listing was legitimate because she had the couple’s driver licenses.

Caldwell asked her to send them to her, which she eventually did.

“As soon as I saw the photos of the licenses, I called Margo and told her, ‘That isn’t them.

Those pictures don’t look anything like the Kasparks.’”

Caldwell also called the Indian River County Sheriff’s office, where she was told that the sheriff could not do anything since no crime had been committed.

After hearing from Caldwell, Sudnykovych removed the listing from Zillow, and other sites and notified the FBI of the attempted fraud. She said on Monday that the FBI is investigating the case, trying to identify the scammer or scammers.

“We are fortunate to have such good neighbors like Shelley,” said Craig Kaspark.

Besides fake seller scams, property fraud includes mortgage fraud, in which scammers take out mortgages on property they don’t own and abscond with proceeds; wire fraud done by hackers who get into the transaction chain and divert purchase funds to overseas bank accounts during real estate closings; and rental fraud, in which scammers list property they don’t own for rent and cheat prospective renters out of the their first and last months rent and security deposits – a scheme calls “alarmingly common.”

Bridget Berg, a principal of fraud solutions at CoreLogic, a property data and technology company, told that real estate fraud “is still relatively rare,” but the trend is upward.

The Federal Trade Commission told Insider there were 1,722 reports of real estate loan-related identity theft in the first quarter of 2023, and the entire range of scams is taking place right here in Indian River County.

Fischer, who quickly spotted the Silver Sands scam, said she previously listed a lot for fake owners and spent several hundred dollars starting to market it before she was clued in by another agent who knew the lot was not for sale.

Gigi Williams at the property appraiser’s office said on Friday that another instance of real estate fraud was just discovered but could not provide details because the matter was under active investigation by the Vero Beach Police.

Margo Sudnykovych said Monday she knew of another current fake seller fraud attempt in Sebastian.

In the case of Wesley Davis’ friends, “a lot come on the market next door to their home [in Vero Lakes Estates] and naturally they were interested,” Davis said. “It wasn’t unreasonably priced, so they bought it and closed on it and got ready to put up a carport and shed.

“They brought in $10,000 in fill and put down a non-refundable $4,000 deposit on a shed before the fraud became known. Luckily, they had title insurance to cover the hard dollars they paid for the lot.”

Davis’ office keeps an updated “Notary Fraud List,” which is shared with local title companies and there is a fraud prevention button on the front page of the property appraiser’s website. Anyone who signs up for the free service will receive an alert via email each time a document is recorded under their name with the Indian River County Clerk of Court Recording Office.

“That is a good initiative of the Clerk’s Office,” Davis said. “It won’t necessarily stop the fraud from occurring but will notify you of it quickly.”

Local, online and government experts agree real estate fraud is hard to prevent. They say you must be super careful, watch for any red flags such as notaries with overseas addresses, know all of the professionals you are dealing with, keep personal information secure and be sure to have title insurance.

“You can’t do a wire transfer anymore without going into the bank personally,” said Fischer. “I tell clients coming from up north to take care of that with their bank before they come down to close or the bank won’t send the money.”

“It is happening,” Davis said. “I am very concerned about it.”

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