On Friday, I was surprised to get a letter in the mail from a company in California I had never heard of before. The text of the letter — with personal information, mostly mine and theirs, excised — follows:
[My home address]
We have an interest in a small parcel of land in Riverside County California. According to the Riverside County Recorder there is a cloud on the title in your name. In order to clean up the title to this land we need to remove your name from this title. We can accomplish this through a number of means but the simplest is for you to sign the enclosed deed.
You may not even be aware of this interest and we are not sure how you acquired this interest but we are willing to give you $1,000.00 for your signature on the enclosed deed.
Attached please find a deed for the lot, just sign it with a Notary Public, and mail it back to me in the enclosed envelope. When I receive the deed I will send you the $1,000.00 gift card.
Please feel free to call me at my toll free direct line [phone number].
Thank you for your help.
Andy [Scammer], Secretary
My first response was, “Huh?” I have never lived or owned property in California, and there is no reason why any property in that state would be held in my name. My second response was to notice a severe lack of commas in the letter. My old English teacher would have marked this up seven times for non-comma run-on sentences. And my third response was to notice that they first offered me a thousand dollars, and only identified it as a thousand-dollar gift card later in the body of the letter. I suspect a legitimate business would write a check or money order, not deal in gift cards.
This has just got to be a scam. I can’t think of any other reason why Andy would send this poorly-written letter to me. So I started to search the Internet for hits on the name of the business, Andy, or the listed phone numbers. A reverse lookup on the phone numbers didn’t yield any hits, which would be unusual for an established business. And the business address is a P.O. box. I could understand a suite address, but not a P.O. box. If they have the wherewithal to purchase property in freakin’ expensive California, why they don’t they have the dinero to rent an office space?
I started to search using phrases in the text of the letter to see if it would bring up other examples. Nothing really worked until I searched with the phrase “quit claim scam”. Then I got an illuminating hit at an NBC affiliate’s website.
“People today are having their houses stolen right from under them and they don’t even know it,” said Sgt. Richard Davis, of Miami-Dade police.
All the criminals need is a one-page quit claim deed — a document used to pass ownership of a property from one person to another.
How does the scam work? Police say the crooks fill out a quit claim deed, transferring the property to themselves. Then they get it recorded. But, the county Recorder’s Office is not responsible for checking the document’s authenticity.
I can see how this might be a profitable scam, but I don’t actually own any land in California. So how would it help the scammers for me to sign a quit claim on property I don’t actually own? Then I found this article at another NBC affiliate’s website that answered my question:
Local authorities are having a hard time stopping a land scam involving quit claim deeds. Thieves steal property from legitimate owners and sell it to unsuspecting buyers.
“It’s like the wild west. You steal a herd of cattle or something, but this is just land grabbing,” said Claudia Barella.
Last summer Barella tried to sell two Lehigh lots left to her by her mother. When she went to put the deeds in her name, she got a surprise at the courthouse.
“They printed out a deed and believe it or not, this looks close to my mother’s signature, but my mother’s been dead for four years,” said Barella.
Someone had forged her mother’s signature on a quit claim deed, a commonly used document to hand over property to another person, essentially quitting ownership of it.
The article goes on to say that it’s not illegal to issue a quit claim on property you don’t own. For example, I could sign a quit claim of my ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge. The form would mean that all the ownership I had in the Brooklyn Bridge is now yours. The kicker is that I don’t actually own any part of the bridge, so I have transferred no real ownership. But if you take that quit claim form to other people and try to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to them because I have transferred the ownership to you, then you are committing fraud. Is that what Andy Scammer is trying to do? I don’t know, but this letter doesn’t pass the sniff test. Something about it smells funny.
But Andy Scammer made one mistake — sending the letter through the U.S. Postal Service. So I’ll be forwarding the letter to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Go get ‘em, guys!