CatFish Buyers Targeting Realtors
Updated: Feb 12
Image above courtesy "Catfish"
There are a number of people running scams, fraud, phishing, viruses, malware, etc. targeting real estate agents (many of whom are Realtors in the US) these days. If you look online, you'll find many examples (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) of agents who have wasted time or been scammed who were catfished by people posing as buyers. The majority of times, these buyers don't do anything in person and never show their face, while the minority of times, they might actually go to properties with people. In this article I wanted to focus on those that never show their face since they are so much more common than those that do.
In this post, I wanted to share more about how I was in the original movie "Catfish", fake buyers targeting real estate agents including but not limited to how to spot them, how to respond to the issue, & if I'm sending you this post after you've reached out to me about buying, why I am doing so. In order to help you skip around, I'm using 3 sections that you can expand or contract to skip to the next section.
I. What is a Catfish & My appearance in the movie "Catfish"
Have you ever seen the movie "CatFish"? A "catfish" is someone where they pretend to be someone else, with pictures of that person that they post into an online profile, and then connect with other people under the pretense of their false identity. My pictures from when I was in high school & college are actually in the movie as the "catfish" brother of the main "catfish", unbeknownst to me until friends of mine told me that my pictures were in the movie. It wasn't the first or the last time that someone used my pictures to create a catfish account. The catfish of the movie created multiple profiles, including one for me, which she used to try to establish ethos to catfish a guy into dating her online & over the phone.
Here's one example of a screenshot from the film with my parents cropped out of the picture:
Here's the original picture:
Elsewhere in the film, you'll find this picture except my friend is cut out of it:
Catfishing doesn't stop at fake online dating though. Sometimes it goes beyond that. I've even had a friend of mine move to another state where she was supposed to be meeting a man that she thought she was dating, only to find that he was a catfish. Most of my encounters with catfish these days are catfish buyers, who have no intention to buy, but want to try to see if they can get money out of me through fraud.
II. How to Spot Catfish Buyers & How to Respond to the Signs of It
Here are some of the tell-tale signs of catfish buyers & how to respond directly to those issues. No matter what signs occur, it's a good idea for real estate agents to protect themselves by, according to the Financial and Consumer Services Commission, doing the following:
"Confirm all documentation (ie: driver’s licence, government issued-ID) to ensure identity, especially if you don’t meet the client in person and are dealing exclusively via email or text message.
Avoid sending or sharing sensitive information via email.
Verify with the bank that the funds have cleared before completing a transaction.
Trust your instinct. If something seems off with the client or transaction, practice further due diligence before proceeding."
In addition to those, I recommend the following overall principles:
Ask buyers to engage with you on video early on in the home buying process; it's more effective anyways in a discussion (i.e. building a search on MLS) if you have the ability to screen share, which is a built-in feature on many video platforms like Skype, Zoom, and Facebook. If they don't share their face, make a mental note of that being an indication that they could be a catfish buyer. They also might be legitimate, but by showing you their face for live discussion, it's much less likely that they're a catfish buyer.
Ask buyers about if they're on any other social media where you can connect if they initially connected with you on a social media account that has little reason for you to believe that they are who they say they are. For instance, look for how recently the account was opened, for a low number of connections, no pictures of them with others tagged in them or when such pictures exist, they appear to be of other catfish, etc. If they're a legitimate person, they're much more likely to have a more established social media profile elsewhere.
Even with those where I have no belief that they are catfish buyers, I like to do video early on in the process, ideally in our first discussion where we shift to video mid-discussion or talk on video starting off after a brief written exchange. I use screenshare for many things, like showing them exactly what I am doing with building the search, showing them some MLS search basics, & offering many other things that are best on screenshare, if desired by the buyer, like creating a budget, giving them credit advice, showing them how to see the crime of a neighborhood & a better visual idea of a neighborhood with online resources, showing them market conditions, showing them interest rate conditions, etc.
Obtain preapproval or proof of funds prior to seeing homes together, even if you have no suspicion of a buyer being a catfish. That is best for legitimate buyers since sometimes time is of the essence between when you see a home and when you make an offer, & if you don't have financing documentation in place in advance, sometimes you can miss a narrow window on an offer if getting that takes even a few hours, especially if relying on an institution that doesn't produce those on nights or weekends. That will help you investigate the legitimacy of the buyer.
Obtain a buyer brokerage agreement prior to seeing homes together, even if you have no suspicion of a buyer being a catfish. In some states like VA, to do otherwise, in most cases where you are representing a buyer, would be a breach of law, though keep in mind that I am not an attorney. While catfish buyers may be willing to sign buyer brokerage agreements and offers, they are less likely to be willing than actual buyers. Even if not illegal in your state, you can waste a lot of time with buyers who can cut and run without preapproval if they feel like taking advantage of an agent and don't fully grasp the value of an agent during the buying process after finding a home.
Below are some additional details:
1. They won't want to show their face to you on live video or do anything in person, & are often reluctant to audio
Most of the time, but not always, they won't want to show their face to you on live video or do anything in person, & are often reluctant to audio. They could tell you that they want to do a showing in person in the future (i.e. next week) and then never actually do it. I've even had a buyer who I suspected of being a catfish buyer show themself on video, but not show their full face. It was pretty strange. They'll sometimes give very strange excuses about why they won't show their face on video or why they won't even talk to you on the phone.
How to Respond:
Get on video or do something in person early on in the process before wasting too much time with them. Even with legitimate buyers I typically request early on in the process that we do video chat. Video chat on a platform that allows for screen sharing is much more effective for showing legitimate buyers things that you couldn't over the phone, via a messaging platform, or via text. If they're unwilling to do video, ask about audio.
If they request a meeting with you, make it one that is close to you, if it's going to be distant, ask them for further proof of their legitimacy by asking if they can provide proof of funds in advance. It might be fun to them for you to drive 3 hours round trip to show up to their absence, but it won't be fun to you.
2. High Price Range
If you ask a catfish buyer what price range they are looking in, it's typically going to be supposedly in the millions of USD in my experience. That's not unusual in some markets, but in markets where it is, it's one of the tell-tale signs to be on the lookout for other signs.
How to Respond:
Ask for proof of funds before you would typically ask someone who you don't have multiple signs of being a catfish. Before I show legitimate buyers property, I recommend that they have a preapproval or proof of funds prior. Not doing so could cost them the home they're seeing if their lender is slow on the draw or if their financial institution can't produce the proof of funds they need in a timely manner. With a buyer who has many signs of being a catfish buyer, it's not a bad idea to request proof of funds or a preapproval much earlier on in the process.
3. Reaching out to you by "accident" or mentioning a vague prior connection
Reaching out to you by "accident" doesn't always happen with catfish buyers, but it happens more with them than with other buyers since it's a common tactic employed by those attempting to scam & defraud people. They may have the name of someone else in their initial text to you.
When not reaching out to you by "accident", they'll often mention a very vague prior connection & not "remember" any details.
How to Respond:
Simply make a mental note of it. If they have other tell-tale signs of being a catfish buyer, you'll want to have as many clues as you can in order to know how to respond.
4. They reach out to you over social media, email, or via text rather than a call.
Often they will reach out to you over social media, email, or via text rather than a call. That doesn't mean anything alone, since many buyers do, but accompanied with other factors, it can be one of the tell-tale signs.
If the suspected Catfish buyer is on social media, they will often have a small network &/or not many photos posted by others that tag them.
How to Respond:
If they reach out to you via email, look to see if you are the recipient or if you are simply BCC'd. If you are merely BCC'd, they may have sent the exact same message to hundreds or thousands of people.
If the email looks outrageously suspicious and you're BCC'd, you may want to simply ignore or delete it if you're getting a lot of emails like that due to the low likelihood of their legitimacy. If a legitimate buyer really wants to reach you, he can reach out to you without a BCC.
If a suspected catfish buyer reaches out to you over social media, investigate to see who is tagged in pictures on their profile if on something like Facebook. Do those tags appear to be from similarly suspicious profiles that they could have set up as well?
5. They send you a link or attachment
If they send you a link or attachment, don't download it just yet. If you've already started to engage with them, ask them to send the information another way, such as over the phone or in a plain email.
This one's a bit tricky if the link or attachment supposedly is the proof of funds that you've requested from them, but it's pretty rare for them to actually send anything if they're fake and you request proof of funds or preapproval.
How to Respond:
If you've never engaged with them before, you can either delete it or ignore it if you believe there is plenty of reason to believe that it's not legitimate. Alternatively, you can respond with an email template like the one I composed & often use:
In light of the high volume of malware and viruses out there these days, I find it a best practice to avoid clicking links & downloading attachments from people that I don't know personally. If we have communicated in the past, would you mind refreshing my memory?
(OPTIONAL SECTION IF PERTINENT)
If relating to property & you haven’t stated the address, may you let me know the address of the property that you are referring to and your relation to that address?
3rd Generation Realtor
Garrett Realty Partners
Offices from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach
11864 Canon Blvd Suite 103
Newport News, VA 23606
Adam is licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia
In the rare case that the link or attachment supposedly is the preapproval that you've requested, ask for the name and contact info of the lender if it's a preapproval. Check him out online before reaching out to him, ideally over a Google searchable contact number that matches with the info provided by the suspected catfish buyer. Before downloading an attachment, scan it for viruses. There are also resources where you can check to see if a link is safe before going there.
In the rare case that the link or attachment supposedly the proof of funds that you've requested, ask for the name and contact info of the financial institution and then reach out to them before opening anything after doing a Google search, also checking to see if it appears legitimate. Check him out online before reaching out to him, ideally over a Google searchable contact number that matches with the info provided by the suspected catfish buyer. Before downloading an attachment, scan it for viruses. There are also resources where you can check to see if a link is safe before going there.
6. They often want to shift away from typical methods of written communication.
They may ask you to use apps like Telegram, Whatsapp, or something else after introducing themselves initially via text or email.
How to Respond:
I generally humor that request, but make a mental note that a low # of buyers I work with have ever used Whatsapp with me (& none have ever used Telegram), and those legitimate buyers (I've closed with at least 4 buyers who used Whatsapp with me at least once) who have been ones where they didn't have a problem doing a video chat with me where I saw their face. They also didn't have a problem sending me proof of funds or preapproval that was necessary for the transaction.
7. Opposite gender using attractive images