Country Living Series

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Faerie Gold scam

Some of you who are familiar with mythical folklore might remember "faerie gold." Faerie gold is glittering riches bestowed upon humans by faeries. It looks real until humans try to use it, at which point it either disappears or changes into something worthless. Keep this in mind for a few minutes.

During the 18-month period it took us to sell our old home, I kept notes about various things that happened because I knew I would be writing an article for Backwoods Home Magazine on the subject of For Sale By Owner (FSBO) selling. (I submitted the article a couple weeks ago, and it's slated to be printed in the near future.)

But while writing the article, I opted to leave out an unusual series of communications that happened with one prospective "buyer" (scammer) since it was too long, drawn-out, and confusing to include in the article. However it was weird enough that I thought I would post the experiences here, and see if any of you could offer insight.

In a nutshell, this is what happened. We engaged in some bizarre, elaborate, and lengthy emails (over several weeks) supposedly involving two physicians working in southern California, but originally from Australia. They apparently were so eager to buy our home in the middle of rural Idaho that they had their "solicitor" draw up papers before they had even seen the property. Suffice it to say the solicitor's contact information (website, physical address) was incorrect, and the phone number was disconnected. The only contact was by email. There were so many red flags about these people that in the end it became more amusing than anything else as they strung us along.

I kept all communications from this party, which are copied below. Please note the English is careful but not fluent (spelling and punctuation is copied from the original). The last names of the buyers are substituted with [Lastname], and the attorney's last name is substituted with [Surname]. [Bracketed and italicized comments are mine.]

Them: "Hello, is this property still available in the market? We would like to get more information. Are you the owner?" [This communication included a Los Angeles phone number and an email.]

My response: "With regards to your inquiry about our homestead for sale – yes, it's still available, and we are the owners. We'd be happy to answer any questions."

Them: "Sorry for the late response. My wife and I are doctors which is quite overwhelming especially in such uncertain times.  It's good to know you are the property owner because we have a few questions that need your answers. We would like to know the following;

1. Has there been any major renovation done in the past?
2. Currently, are there any major or minor renovations to be done? Especially with the roof, how old is the roof?
3. Can we get a list of what is included and not included in the house sale?
4. Lastly, please enlighten us on what the neighborhood is like

My wife is particularly interested in the property so we would like to get answers to these questions to be sure it fits with our budget then we can proceed accordingly."

[This was the first red flag for us. Why would two doctors be interested in a homestead property in a remote corner of Idaho?]

Me: (Gave detailed responses to his questions.)

Them: "Thank you for the detailed response and sharing these information to help us make a decision. It is good to hear the roof will not be needing any renovation, talking from experience. Kindly let us know when is a good time to inspect so we can get a physical view of the property  Let us know if 2pm next tuesday or wednesday works for you. In the meantime, share the floor plan of the property so we can have a better understanding of it's layout. Lia (my wife) is particularly interested in this property and has made necessary steps to prompt our attorney to come up with a formal offer. We would be happy to present to you for your consideration and hopefully we can come to an agreement and close the deal at the earliest time possible."

[This is when multiple red flags began waving. Why would anyone make a "formal offer" on a property they hadn't even seen? We did extensive searches and found absolutely no online presence for anyone with the names they gave us. Surely two doctors in Southern California would have some sort of internet presence?]

Me: "We'd be delighted to schedule a showing. Either of those dates (Tue. Aug. 4 or Wed. Aug. 5) work well for us. We have another party interested in seeing the property early next week, so give us a firm date/time and we'll make sure the other party picks a different date/time. Have you been to our dedicated website? You'll find floor plans of the house, a Google Earth overhead shot of the property, and dozens of photos. Please note we are firm on our asking price. Our property is actually priced on the low side for comparable properties in our area. As a matter of interest, where are you coming from?"

Them: "Thank you once again. We will be looking forward to the inspection for next week Tuesday and will be sure to keep in touch. Our attorney is copied on this email, his name is Justin and he will be coming up with all our offer for the property, proof of funds and letter of intent. Hopefully we can strike a deal after the inspection and you have considered our offer."

[Note, he didn't answer my question of where they were coming from.]

From the attorney: "I would like to take this opportunity to formally introduce myself to Patrice as the solicitor to Drs. Morgan and Lia [Lastname]. It is my understanding there's existing correspondence between seller (Patrice Lewis) and prospective buyer (Drs. Morgan and Lia [Lastname]) prompting an intent to purchase your property. Patrice, Kindly advise if you have a contract of sale. If yes, please provide. Thanks, Kind regards."

[The contact information from this "solicitor" was in Queensland, Australia. We immediately did an internet search and found discrepancies, notably in the spelling of the solicitor's email address versus the spelling of the company in which he was supposedly a partner.]

Don wrote an email to the "solicitors" in Queensland as follows: "Good day: My name is Don Lewis and I'm writing to inquire if Justin [Surname] is an associate partner with your firm. I'm located in the State of Idaho in the U.S. and we are in the process of selling our house. We were contacted by Drs. Morgan and Lia [Lastname] about our home and they asked their attorney, Justin [Surname], to deal with making an offer. Below is the contact information and signature line for Mr. Madden [Here, Don listed the full contact info provided.] While his address is the same as yours, neither of the phone numbers agree with your office numbers, and one of them points to the U.S. state of New Jersey. Additionally, his email address is spelled differently than your firm's. Please advise us if Mr. [Surname] is associated with your firm. Thank you for your consideration in this matter. – Don Lewis"

We heard nothing back from the email, so we tried calling the Queensland phone number. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work.

Me, to the buyers: "We will look for you on Tuesday, August 4, at 2 pm. You will find driving directions below. Where are you coming from?"

[This was the second attempt to gauge where they're from. No response.]

The buyers rescheduled: "Hi Don & Patrice, I just found this message in my outbox, apparently i thought i had sent it until i didn't get a reply from you up till this morning i decided to check again. Can we please reschedule the inspection for Thursday or Friday same time (2pm)? Some other situation just came up that won't allow the previous arrangement. Sorry for any inconvenience this might cause."

Me: "Thursday will not work since we have a prior commitment. However Friday at 2 pm sounds fine. We'll see you then."

Then the attorney sent a "Formal Offer" with encrypted attachments. The email said: "FORMAL OFFER. Sequel to previous correspondence with my clients, please find Introduction letter, Offer Letter and Proof of funds as discussed. I'm available until 5pm today if you need me for further clarity."

[Neither of us could open the encrypted attachments. And again, who makes an offer without ever having seen the property?]

Me to attorney: "I'm sorry, we're unable to open the attached files. Please send either un-encrypted or as a Word attachment. Alternately, since your clients will be viewing the property this upcoming Friday, they can bring the documents with them."

Attorney: "My apologies. My clients just brought my attention to this. Let me have it resent to you. I'm not with my computer i could send you the pdf if it's easier."

Me: "Yes, please try a pdf."

[No reply from attorney.]

Me to buyers: "Please confirm your plans to inspect our homestead tomorrow at 2 pm. If your schedule has changed, do let us know. Where are you coming from? Also, did you receive the driving directions I sent yesterday?"

And that was that. We never heard back from either the "buyers" or the "solicitor." On the day they were supposed to arrive, we cleaned the house and prepared to receive them, but were completely unsurprised when no one showed up.

So what was behind this elaborate ruse? My only guess is they supposed that since our house was FSBO, we were a couple of uneducated rubes. But what were they after? They never asked for money (like those silly Nigerian scams). It's not like they could steal our house.

About this time, a lot of scary advertisements were airing about home title theft, but as it turns out, home title theft is actually very rare and usually involves a lot of clueless (often elderly) sellers giving away far more information than they should. I did take the precaution of calling our title company to confirm the house was still in our name (it was), but otherwise title theft did not seem to be the focus of these scammers.

Another possibility was the encrypted file sent by the attorney (which neither of us could open) might have put a bug in our computers that that would lead them to finding the passwords to our home's title, which they could then "steal" so they could "sell" our house to some unsuspecting victim – but that's nothing more than speculation. We ran virus scans on both our computers and found nothing. Nor have we since then.

Anyway, that was our experience. Like faerie gold, the whole ephemeral ruse disappeared into thin air. In fact, that's what we started calling it the Faerie Gold scam. Even now, many months later, we're clueless why these people engaged in such a lengthy back-and-forth communications, but without any apparent benefit to themselves.

Can anyone offer any insight to what in blazes this whole elaborate drawn-out scheme was about?

13 comments:

  1. We had a similar type of exchange when we sold a car a few years ago. It turned out the scam was they wanted us to use a very specific website (similar to Carfax) to pay to have a report done on the history of our car.
    The potential buyer never said where he was from, and kept wanting to set up times for "his friend" who was in the area to come view the car, but only after we had paid to have this car history report done. When we pointed out the website was a fraud and Carfax was legitimate, we never hear from him again.

    Not sure if your "buyer" would have eventually requested something similar or not.

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  2. Possibly money laundering?

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  3. I suspect that had the scam played out longer you would have received a request to pay for the inspection fee or subsidize the trip for the buyers or some other equally stupid request.

    I offer firearms instruction to people and I was once contacted by someone that supposedly wanted to pay for lessons for all 4 of his kids for several weeks amounting to a few thousand dollars. The kids would be brought by private car to my class site. I could only talk to this person via email because they were serving on a merchant ship in South America without access to a phone. Gee, I wonder why?

    The scam came to a conclusion when I was asked to defray some of the cost for the private car that would be transporting the students to my class, paid up front of course before ever collecting a penny in training fees.

    These morons have no shortage of scams, but what they never seem to realize is their scam sounds so strange to Americans that it sets off multiple red flags as it did with you and myself. The culture barrier probably does more to alert us than anything else.

    In my case, who uses a private car to transport their children, whom were all in their mid 20s according to the email.

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  4. If you accepted an offer from them, they would have made a payment via check from the foreign, third-party law firm. It would have “accidentally” been for too much, and the firm would have requested that you wire-transfer the overpayment amount. By the time the original check bounced (which it most assuredly would), they would have their money. This particular real estate scam usually involves: over-eager buyers willing to purchase sight unseen; unverifiable or suspicious credentials; use a foreign, third-party law firm or financial institution to add credibility and create the check time-gap scenario (if real, they likely would be unaware their name was being used, and contact information would not match up); questionable English in communications.

    Sounds like they checked off every box. Your suspicions were well-founded, and your inquiries probably scared them off before they made an offer, likely above your asking price. Hope this helps.

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  5. My husband is a realtor. Oh the scams and ruses. Sheesh. People need hobbies other than wasting people's time. First off he has sold properties sight unseen. It is rare but not improbable. The scams, though, tend to string people along until there is a payment point – for instance paying for a report, a service or an inspection which is via a fraudulent website or a phony company; or gaining sufficient personal information to then perform a different scam (watch your elderly loved ones on this front - we have frustratingly dealt with these a few times). While the pay off to us may seem minor, imagine defrauding dozens of people at once. The “free” money is obviously worth the investment in the scams. My opinion for what it is worth it that FSBO deals can involve desperate sellers who may not being pay close enough attention and or lack education/common sense. I think the fraudsters are aiming to capitalize on someone’s misery in these scenarios. I am glad it was all a bunch of nonsense for you. One more step in your new adventure.

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  6. We've been the "almost victims" of multiple scams from "I am on a merchant ship but want to buy your Lance camper", to firing one realtor in western Washington when we figured out he was in a cult and wasn't trying to sell our house, then hiring a different realtor farther away from cult central, only to find out two years later that she was housing multiple cult families in our home, then firing her and hitting pay dirt with the third realtor who had a buyer for our house in two days. Sigh. Second realtor was sending us bogus copies of ads created to sell our house and even locked it up with a bogus contract. We should have sued her but were too broke.
    Then we had a psychopath make a cash offer on my mom's place, but called the bank to confirm he and his money was legitimate (small town) and found out he wasn't and to not take a check (after he missed the "closing" because he said his son died, another lie. In the end he didn't even send a check.
    We've dealt with obviously fraudulent checks that the bank paid out of my dad's account that he didn't write, which the bank would not assist us and have been warned by the bank to not take cash due to fake bills.
    There are more faerie dust forms of payment than there are legitimate ones and one must be ever vigilant.
    So thankful that you and Don are on top of things!
    sidetracksusie

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  7. Sounds like a scam indeed, although I cannot quite figure out the angle - other than perhaps the encrypted files having viruses.

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  8. They may have been trying to determine if you actually occupied the home. Several years ago there was some scams where people would list homes for rent, other people would put down a deposit, travel from out of state, arrive at the home ready to move in........ to find it fully occupied by the clueless homeowner.

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  9. My first guess is ransomware. Since you are selling FSBO via internet and email, you'd need uninterrupted access to your computer and documents. Encrypting your entire computer system would put you in a world of hurt and then they could hold them hostage for a significant payment.

    Second guess is that they were after your banking information as you theorized. Plant any number of a variety of trojan horses, get the information, wait until the sale is finalized and bank deposits are completed, then drain the account.

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  10. Post Alley CrackpotApril 6, 2021 at 7:50 PM

    All Hail The Great Personage!
    All Hail The Great Personage!

    Expect Great Things upon the arrival of The Great Personage!

    You will be Amazed at the Great Things that will happen upon the arrival of The Great Personage!

    But what's this???

    OH NOEZ
    THE GREAT PERSONAGE IS IN A JAM

    What shall you do???

    Maybe you could provide Free Stuff so that The Great Personage can get out of the jam?

    After all, nobody wants to slow the arrival of The Great Personage!

    And thus all things with The Great Personage happen quickly, including the money you lose.

    ... so, yeah, it's a confidence game as old as mankind itself.

    It's a rapid play confidence game in which something notionally of great value is presented with much pomp and circumstance, often involving what looks like a major law firm or a bank, but because of deliberate misrepresentations essential to the fraud's success, the recipient is made to feel that errors in the recipient's favour must be remedied immediately or that there's some kind of crisis that needs to be resolved quickly.

    That's how you lose money to these scams.

    But you've seen this before, actually.

    Remember those Fake Canary Wharf people a while back?

    That's the same type of confidence game, just a different set of mechanisms and actors.

    What works well against the speed run game is the slow down game in which you draw these people out for so long that they know you're not going to fall for the speed tricks.

    And that's why they eventually went away.

    Without knowing for certain that this was the right type of countermeasure, intuitively you sensed the right solution to these speed run artists was to slow them down.

    I'd suggest you reward yourselves with the Krispy Kreme doughnuts you'd earned yourselves by not falling for the Fake Canary Wharf people again, but not even I'm eating those things anymore after all of that Gold Star Vaccine Virtue Signalling they're doing. :-)

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  11. As suggested, they probably would have asked for your bank account information so they could wire their earnest money directly to you. Then they would've initiated a transfer in the other direction.

    I tried to sell a sofa on Craigslist once, and the same thing happened. The chatty buyer who worded things awkwardly decided to buy sight unseen and asked for my PayPal info. I said cash only, and she replied that it had to be PayPal: 'Send PayPal information please.' I declined and that ended it.

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  12. As a former computer tech please take my advice.... FORMAT AND REINSTALL WINDOWS ASAP. Rootkits are probably what were in those windows files you tried to open and they run OUTSIDE of the Circle of what any antivirus can scan for. You have probably been hacked open and the attackers are quietly waiting to install other "goodies" later when you least expect it. Also always keep personal files on a separate hard drive for these types of attacks.... Never on your "c" drive.

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