Back in February, I described how our government is making our lives more dangerous by putting our property data online without properly protecting it–and how that can be used against us. I know I’m not the only one concerned, as evidenced by this post by Bob Chambless. (Thanks for reading, Bob.) However, the threat I mentioned in my previous article has now seen its springtime awakening.
Few people realize just how significant cybercrime has become. It’s a growing problem for workplaces, and has been on the rise for some time. The following two stories demonstrate new ways that your property data can be used fraudulently to help further the mission of criminals.
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Case 1: Rental Fraud
I had told a friend of mine about this around the time I wrote that previous article. This friend of mine, aside from being a prosecutor, owns a rental property. She’s currently between renters, so over the weekend prior she had gone to the property to finish a little clean up and repair. The management company she was working with was already showing it, so she was not surprised to find a couple waiting out front.
The couple was excited to see the place. They had seen an ad for it on a popular site, and had come to check it out for themselves. They were gushing about the description in the ad, particularly the description of the kitchen.
Curiously, though, the kitchen they were describing did not match the kitchen she knew she owned. She asked if she could see the ad. When she took a look, everything on the ad seemed correct in terms of verifiable details. The address was (obviously) correct. So was the list price. The county lot data was good, and her name was on the listing. But the description of the interior was not correct.
She contacted the property manager and asked if they knew anything about this. They responded in the negative. They had listed it for rent using sites like Zillow, of course, but they had not mentioned her name. They didn’t know how this particular listing had come about.
She then asked the prospective renters about the listing. They stated they had been completely unaware that there was a property manager involved. They had e-mailed in reply to the add and been informed that the property owner was out of state, and all they had to do was mail the first month’s rent and security deposit and they’d receive a key in the mail.
It was, of course, a fraudulent listing that looked legit because they had obtained the data available on the county accessory website. Sure, this was a rental scam, not a foreclosure scam, but other than that it was the same MO. And these renters were out several hundred dollars as a result.
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Case 2: Mobile Meth Labs
When my friend had gone back to her office to tell her tale to her coworkers, an officer who was in the office to discuss evidence for an upcoming trial immediately shook up his head. It seemed he had another interesting tale to tell of criminals using fraudulent property data to perpetrate crimes.
He’d formerly worked a county over. While there, he’d had a group of “regulars” he had to deal with involving property issues. Their deal was different than the scam I just described, but relied on the same data. Unfortunately, the implications here are even worse than what I dreamed of and my friend encountered.
He would routinely get called to out to deal with public disturbances in neighborhoods. Frequently, the disturbance was being caused by the same group of people, but it kept bouncing around from neighborhood to neighborhood. Now, if that sounds strange, it should. This is not even remotely normal.
It took a bit for the police to figure out what was happening. The break came when they discovered that one of the homes these people were living in was being foreclosed on. The catch? These people weren’t actually the people being foreclosed on. During the dispute over the foreclosure the house would have been vacated. Then the fraudsters moved in…
…Because they were running meth labs. These criminals were brewing up extremely toxic (and potentially explosive) chemicals in these vacated homes.
This worked because, in order to actually get inside the house to catch the lab in operation, the police needed probable cause–and they couldn’t get it. They needed either evidence (which was inside the house, and thus beyond reach) or they needed the property owners to file a report of a crime taking place. Unfortunately, the foreclosure tied this up for months. The former owners would be convinced it was no longer their property, so they couldn’t file. The bank would report that it hadn’t yet been seized, or that the foreclosure rights had been sold to a third party. They couldn’t file a report. The third party would report that the transfer had not yet been completed, so they couldn’t file…
In spite of the fact that it was blatantly obvious that major criminal activity was taking place, they couldn’t go on the property for lack of anything that met the rigorous legal requirements for a warrant. The police couldn’t even get a report filed for a trespassing charge, let alone anything stronger. The best they could do was stake the place out and hope to catch a deal going down–even though the deals took place inside.
So where does the county assessor data come in to play? Because it would take so long to obtain access, the police tried to do what they could to drive these meth-fueled home invaders off the property. They’d contact the utilities companies to have power and water shut off if the payments were in arears. Unfortunately, this didn’t work either: the criminals would access the county assessor data and use that to contact the utility companies and pay the overdue bills. Because the criminals were using the correct information as far as the utility companies could tell, the power and water would be turned back on. Even if they knew what was going on, the utilities couldn’t legally refuse payment and keep the water and power off. Everyone’s hands were tied.
By the time the police could finally get a report, the meth-makers had moved on to a new property. The process would start over once again as the police waited for the next report from a neighbor.
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As it turns out, the problem I’d mentioned in the previous article is worse than I’d thought. It goes beyond fraud. The fact our own government is being irresponsible with our property data, and not updating the legal code for the Internet age, means we aren’t just losing money. We are making it easy for dangerous crime to find safe zones in our neighborhoods.
The police officer I mentioned? He finished his tale by mentioning that, during that same weekend my friend’s house was almost rented illegally, he spotted some familiar, and very unwelcome, faces in his own neighborhood. They were on the route his children walked to school.
This has got to stop.