Updated: Sep 26
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 and 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. Why I'm Sending You This Post if You've Reached out to Me About a Purchase
I. If you're a catfish buyer:
Time is money. I waste a lot of time with catfish buyers. The most a catfish buyer has ever gotten from me is my time. I must provide catfish buyers some time, because if I didn't, legitimate buyers could suffer from it that I could be turning away. Catfish buyers have never been successful in hacking into my computer, getting me to invest in their preferred scam, or otherwise. I've created this post in part to demonstrate to catfish buyers, when they reach out to me, that I'm aware of what they are attempting.
2. If you're a legitimate buyer:
That said, someone could have all the signs of a catfish buyer without being one, and by sharing in detail like I am here, I would hope that a legitimate buyer would understand my concern, respect my time, and accommodate my requests for things like proof of funds before showings & meetings with them on live video where we can be face to face. If you have legitimate reasons for not wanting to do video, see section 1 on video below for other means of establishing ethos early on.
III. 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. Even with those whom I have no belief that they are catfish buyers, I like to do face-to-face 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 screen share 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 a screen share, 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.
Ask buyers 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 when such pictures exist, those pictures 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.
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 regarding different situations (especially in section 1 on video):
1. Most often 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, state the following:
"The vast majority of those who are catfish buyers also aren't willing to do a video call. There are some alternatives in the event that you are a legitimate buyer where at least one of the following shouldn't be difficult for most legitimate buyers who are unable to do video. Are you able to provide any one of the following:
1. An email from a business, organization, university, or other entity website
(i.e. I can email you from firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 of 3 university accounts if you wish for me to do the same)
2. A contact from a well established social media account with relatively public settings that has plenty of tagged pictures with other people on the same social media account who themselves have plenty of tagged pictures with others.
3. Share a typical website with your contact info.
I.e. both of the following showing my phone number and email
4. Share a better business bureau listing that matches with your contact info.
5. Availability to meet in person"
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. Most often 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, high privacy settings (i.e. showing pictures but not showing whether there are comments, tags, or likes on those pictures), &/or not many if any photos posted by others that tag them.
What to look for:
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? Do their privacy settings show pictures but no tags & not show their friends count?
3. Most often 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.
4. Most often they are reportedly cash buyers
Catfish buyers are typically supposedly cash buyers,
How to Respond: Even if you're already into crypto-currency, maintain a distance to any advice they want to provide. If they really have great advice, it doesn't hurt you too much to wait to act on it until after your first closing with them.
5. Most often, exactly how they want to scam you won't be clear until you've wasted a lot of time
How to Respond:
Remain vigilant, remain knowledgeable, & be a bit bold while polite and informative if you suspect that you're speaking with a catfish buyer, asking for things like face to face & preapproval sooner than you typically would, asking other probing questions to get to the bottom of things, etc.
6. Most Often English Errors & Holes in Statements if Responding Directly (Vs From a Template Where They Don't Respond Directly Where English Errors Are Reduced)
English errors aren't uncommon with catfish buyers, as well as holes in what they are saying.
How to Respond:
Look for those errors & holes when you engage with them, ask clarifying questions about the holes as they come up, and make mental notes in the meantime without being rude. Many legitimate buyers may not have English as a 1st language. Some legitimate buyers may be of low intelligence or have one or more mental disabilities. There is a big difference though between someone making mistakes due to intelligence or disability and someone appearing to hide a deceptive motive for engaging with you. It's important not to discriminate against someone due to mental or physical handicap. If someone appears highly volatile for whatever reason though, you may want to avoid working with them no matter the purchase price because of the liability on your business for doing so.
For those who don't speak very good English, I believe that I would be doing a disservice to a client to work with them without an interpreter if they speak very broken English, so I typically refer legitimate buyers like that who can help them in ways that I can't. At my company, there are solid agents who speak multiple languages that I can refer them to, such as Korean, Spanish, Burmese, & Hakha. If someone has very broken English, suggest that you refer them to someone else who speaks their language, and ask if they can send you their preapproval or proof of funds prior to finding a referral for them. By including the preapproval/proof of funds, you reduce the likelihood that you are passing on a fake buyer. If they refuse to provide a preapproval, even after you tell them where they can get one (including helping them with their credit if you are capable of that like I am), it might be time part ways.
7. Often they want to shift away from typical methods of written communication (i.e. to Whatsapp, Skype or Telegram).
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.
8. Often they dodge direct answers to questions
Often, they'll dodge direct questions that most buyers wouldn't as you request very typical questions that you would of legitimate buyers. For instance, if you ask a legitimate buyer where they're looking, they will typically be able to tell you promptly, while with a catfish buyer, they may have no idea about your coverage area besides whatever you tell them within the conversation, and if you provide a link to more details about your coverage area like I do, they probably won't take the time to open the link.
When they don't completely try to evade questions, sometimes they'll give obscure answers that sound like they could be made up to explain away things.
9. Often unusually flexible location parameters
Unusually flexible location parameters are common. Typically when a buyer reaches out to me, they have specific parameters for where they want to look for homes. With a Catfish buyer, they're typically not in your area at all, could easily be in another country, and may have never even visited the US with no plans to ever actually do so. Sometimes they'll state that they are retiring. I've certainly worked with buyers who were considering multiple locations before, but typically they have specific reasons why they want to purchase in your area & a job there, while a catfish buyer may know practically nothing about your area and may say something vague like, "I want to live near the beach in a nice area". They can have all kinds of specific parameters they want for the house itself, but their location parameters can easily include your full coverage area even if you cover a very large area like myself.
How to Respond:
Since some buyers are genuinely considering multiple states/areas, ask clarifying questions to try to get to the bottom of why they picked your area. Ask them for where they are looking rather than telling them first what areas you cover, if possible without being rude. Ask them why their location is so flexible if they haven't already given a reason.
When they initially ask me, "What city are you a real estate agent in?" without providing any other context to the conversation, I respond by saying,
I am located in Smithfield but cover this area:
Why do you ask?"
That's a more professional response than most agents for legitimate buyers & legitimate buyers would typically very much like that answer, but for catfish buyers, it hurts because it means they have to spend more time looking at a link in order to get the agent's coverage area. In many cases, the catfish buyer won't go that far because they are unwilling to spend the time to do so.
A catfish buyer, if they don't reach out to you over call or text, is more likely to provide a non-working number as contact information if they are not relying on that number for their communication with you. Also, it's not uncommon for catfish buyers to have 1 number that they initiate contact with, and another number that they use for Whatsapp or Telegram, each of which rely on phone numbers.
10. Sometimes they supposedly made money quickly through investments such as crypto-currency & often offer you unsolicited "investment advice"
Often they supposedly are making money quickly through investments such as crypto-currency. I've certainly helped buyers purchase before where they made a lot of money via crypto-currency, but with catfish buyers, it's very common, & you'll often encounter them highlighting how much they've made, sometimes even sharing with you recent supposed successes with screenshots, in order to entice you to go along with their scheme later on of investing where they encourage you to invest if you're ignorant enough to do so. Those talking about crypto doesn't always have a fraudulent scheme to pump money from you, but it's pretty common if they start giving you unsolicited investment advice.
According to the FTC, "Of the reported crypto fraud losses that began on social media, most are investment scams."
How to Respond:
When a supposed buyer starts giving me unsolicited investment advice, especially about crypto, I say something along the lines of:
It's important to note that I have never acquired crypto-currency and never plan to. I have a diversified portfolio of investments, including roth IRA, roth 401k, liquid stocks, precious metals, and real estate, but would not consider a crypto acquisition or any other investment acquisition with a prospective purchaser as a matter of policy in light of the high volume of scams present around it prior to a closing, and the likelihood of me engaging in any investment even after closing is very low.
11. Sometimes they reach 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.
12. Sometimes opposite gender using attractive images
They are sometimes someone of the opposite gender and more often than a typical buyer to use seemingly attractive images of those they impersonate.
Especially when this situation is applicable, they will often want to get into your personal life and not care about real estate unless you direct the conversation back to it. If you do go deep into your personal life, then try to reel the conversation back into real estate over face-to-face video, I've seen responses such as (& notice the grammatical/punctuation errors):
"We just talked a few words, I don't even know how old you are."
"I want it to be friends who can talk about all the things we like to talk about, chat, everything in the world, so it's fun, not just talk about real estate, which is not a long-term topic, right?"
How to Respond:
Don't be fooled into any sort of romantic emotional attachment from someone who might not even be the same gender as the person they claim to be. Unless you see live video of them speaking to you, it's highly unlikely that they are who they say they are and they are likely just exploiting someone else's image(s). Make a mental note of that throughout your dialogue. If you don't keep that top of mind, it's easier to do something stupid. Also, never flirt with them, and be upfront with them about any existing relationships you have. If you aren't even attracted to their gender, & they are trying to flirt with you, casually bring that up at some point when you find an easy way to integrate it into the conversation without being awkward.
If you get romantically involved with someone who you've never had face-to-face video chat with or seen in person, it's very easy to get disappointed or even scammed if they request private images from you to blackmail you with or request that you take action of some kind. I once had a friend pack up and move to another state to meet her "boyfriend" only to find out that he was a catfish. I've actually received private images of an acquaintance by someone else on social media that appears to have been harassing or blackmailing them who had obtained their images showing their face and private area in the same image.
13. Sometimes they'll ask you if they can pay with crypto
Sometimes, they ask something like, "Will sellers accept a cryptocurrency payment?" after already having a number of tell-tale signs of being a catfish buyer.
How to Respond:
If they've already got a laundry list of common signs of being a catfish buyer, I like to stop beating around the bush & respond by stating the following:
"I actually have a lot of buyers that ask me that question. I've worked with buyers before who have made a lot in crypto, but sadly, most inquiries are illegitimate "catfish buyers". I include in this article more details: https://www.adambgarrett.com/post/buying-a-house-with-crypto-currency
In this article I include more details about "Catfish Buyers" in case you're unfamiliar:
To answer your question more directly, while you could make an offer with crypto, it's highly likely that it would scare a seller and make them think that you are involved in some kind of scam because of the high volume of scams involving crypto since crypto is more difficult to trace than traditional payment methods. I would recommend that you liquidate crypto before making a purchase, then wire the funds required for the purchase prior to closing. A cashier's check would also work.
If they respond by acting as though you're crazy, you might say something like the following:
Sadly there are a lot of scammers out there. I sincerely hope that you are a legitimate buyer, although there have been some elements of this conversation that have raised red flags regarding the prospect of your inquiry not being legitimate. Often those that request to use crypto for purchases will later provide me with unsolicited advice in order to attempt to get me involved in an investment scam. Here's more on those in case you're unfamiliar: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/data-visualizations/data-spotlight/2022/06/reports-show-scammers-cashing-crypto-craze
I sincerely hope that your inquiry is legitimate, and would love to help you purchase the home that you have shared that you are looking for, but it's important that I'm honest with you about my concerns and how you can help me alleviate them via things like face to face discussion over video, proof of funds, and government-issued identification. The identification suggestion is provided here: https://fcnb.ca/en/news-alerts/industry-alert-warning-of-fake-buyers-in-real-estate-transactions
14. Sometimes 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?
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.
For information on Catfish Sellers, go to my article on the subject here.