Bennington realtor describes elaborate real estate scam | Local News – Bennington Banner

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Updated: November 23, 2023 @ 2:00 pm
Realtor Jenifer Hoffman had a feeling a proposed land sale in Bennington was not quite right. She investigated and upset an elaborate real estate scam.

Realtor Jenifer Hoffman had a feeling a proposed land sale in Bennington was not quite right. She investigated and upset an elaborate real estate scam.
BENNINGTON — Realtor Jenifer Hoffman is thanking a sixth-sense feeling she had about a proposed listing of a Bennington home lot for extricating her business from an elaborate and sophisticated scam.
Hoffman, the principal broker and owner of Hoffman Real Estate, said the person impersonated an out-of-state resident who had once lived in Bennington and still owned an undeveloped parcel here he wished to sell.
Hoffman said they spoke briefly by phone and then communicated via email until they had reached a tentative agreement that she would list the property for sale.
“This ‘quote’ seller reached out to me,” Hoffman said, and afterward “wrote me a lengthy introduction, asking me to provide him with a comparable market analysis of what their land is worth, and they gave a specific address.”
She added, “From their email, I understood they were not local, that they wanted someone to be communicative about the process, etc. … I replied, and we went back and forth.”
On Oct. 24, Hoffman said, “I emailed him three documents, including a market analysis, and he wrote back to say thanks, that he has gone through it, and he wanted to know what was my specific suggestion if they wanted to sell it as soon as possible.”
They went back and forth again, all via email, she said, “and they were onboard with my recommendation, and I was about to write up the listing agreement, and something in my mind said, you know, I really need to verify that they are who they say they are.”
Hoffman said she remembered reading recently of a rise in similar real estate scams, including one article in a National Association of Realtors magazine.
“I had talked to him once very briefly on the phone,” Hoffman said of the scammer, “and he originally sent me the phone number as well … He indicated this land was owned by him and his wife.
“Now, I felt I really had to do some more due diligence, because I had read two stories recently, one in the NAR magazine, which talked about land scams being on the rise, which is exactly what this turned out to be.”
She said it was in her mind that a scam could be when “somebody poses as the seller of a piece of property, and you never get to meet them because they are not local, and ultimately you list it and sell it, and they give their wiring instructions for the proceeds.
“And then the person who rightfully owned it no longer does, and someone else now is the owner of it.”
The fact that “closings are almost never in person anymore,” helps make a scam possible, Hoffman said.
“They could give a power of attorney to close on their behalf, or if the buyer is doing a cash purchase, even the buyer doesn’t have to be present. They could simply have to be available for a phone call from their attorney, and they’ll just review all the documents and give it a thumbs up.”
If a scam gets to that point, “it is very easy for the proceeds to be sent to the wrong person,” she said.
“For this particular person, I literally said, ‘Land scams are on the rise, and I feel I have a duty to identify you and your wife,’” Hoffman said, and she asked that photo identifications be sent and for a phone call via Zoom.
The fraudulent sellers sent passport images of themselves, which appeared to match the names and the images of the people, she said.
Since the real owner of the parcel doesn’t live in Bennington, Hoffman said it was not an easy matter to find their contact information.
The Bennington tax bill for the lot was associated with an address in Pennsylvania, she said, but the scammers had said they’d since moved from there to California for work reasons.
“It all sounded completely legitimate,” she said, in part because such scenarios are not uncommon, and many sales or purchases involve people living outside Vermont.
“They had the right person’s name; they were impersonating them. And the [actual owners] had lived here in the past,” she said.
But Hoffman continued to have “a bad feeling” about the proposed listing.
“Once I really felt it was not legitimate, I called him and tried to trick him into saying his name, and he did say he was the correct name of the person he was posing as,” Hoffman said.
Next she went to the town for the property’s tax bill information, “which had a mailing address, and it was in Pennsylvania. So I googled the phone number for city hall [in the community].”
After her call was bounced around to several municipal departments, she was given a direct contact for the real person – the wife – through voter registration information.
Hoffman called the woman and both she and her husband happened to be in their car driving.
Hoffman told who she was and where she was calling from and asked, ”Do you know who I am? And [the woman] said, ‘No.’”
Hoffman informed the couple that “there is someone who has been impersonating you for the last eight or nine days,” and asking her to list their property for sale.
“They were totally flabbergasted,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman later learned that the couple lived in Bennington and were considering building a home on the lot, but moved away before doing so more than a decade ago.
However, the owners were recently in Vermont and told Hoffman they had actually driven by to check on the land.
“From the Realtor perspective,” said Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau, who also works part time for Mahar McCarthy Real Estate, “I have heard of this and taken trainings with regard to it.”
Barbeau added, “It is important to know who you are working with and communicate using more fool proof methods like telephone or in-person. As I am sure Jen has indicated, someone only willing to communicate via email or text is a red flag, or someone who can never seem to be available to talk … I know my brokerage ran into a person last year who was posing as a buyer that a Google search revealed several suspicious stories about. Enough to lead to more questions and to better vet the person.”
Scammers are most often difficult to investigate and track down, Hoffman said. She has had experience with scammers posing as the owner of a rental property, and she has never heard of anyone being arrested.
“Someone sends them money, and they say we’ll send you the key, and off course the keys never come,” she said of that type of scam.
“Here is the dark side of having public records available online,” she said.
Someone could go online and look up a grand list that indicates there is no home on it, she explained, and tax bill information that indicates where the owner actually lives.
Barbeau said that “from a town clerk perspective, we are lucky to be in a fairly small town/region, and I am familiar with many of my residents. I am also happy to have 45 years of records available online for residents to view free of charge, as well as our recent property transfers.
“And, our host service, RecordHub, is launching an alert system that residents can sign up for with an email address if anything is ever recorded in their name or property. It is in the early stages, and of course, we do not know the cost of it yet, but it is something I am following to see if it would be beneficial to my residents and something I could budget for.”
Hoffman said of the end of her interaction with the scammer, “When it was all said and done, I wrote him and said the jig is up and I found the real [owner] and it’s not you, and you can take your scam very far away from here, because I have notified all the brokers in the area.
“And he actually wrote me back and said, ‘Okay, thank you.’ So it’s a polite scammer.”
Jim Therrien can be reached at or by phone at 413-281-2646.

Martha Cordova was in town Friday to file a report with the Bennington Police Department about a sophisticated real estate scam that could have resulted in her home lot being sold out from under her and her husband.

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