Land & Water by Terry Stokka

Squatters, scammers and nosey neighbors

We are seeing an epidemic of squatters in our country who find a home that is vacant and move in. Squatters are generally more prevalent in places like Florida, where snowbird homes sit vacant for several months a year, but it happens here as well.

Homes where folks are on vacation for a month or two or sit vacant for a season are lucrative because they are usually furnished, and the squatter only needs to bring his suitcase. Unfortunately, when the real owner finds out about the squatter, the laws prevent him from immediately evicting the squatter without a court order and that may take three to six months. Often, the squatter inflicts considerable damage to the home.

 A variation of the squatter issue is the scam where a person sees a vacant home and puts out a fake ad for renting the property. They advertise, prepare a lease and handle everything via the internet and email. When the occupancy day arrives, the scammer breaks into the house, changes the locks and leaves the keys under the mat or somewhere near. All money issues are handled with bank transfers and online banking. The fake lease is handled without the scammer ever meeting the unfortunate renter. Sometimes, the scammer doesn’t even bother to change the locks but just leaves the new renter standing at the door, unable to get into the house. Those renters are even harder to evict. They thought they had a valid lease.

 A recent incident within my neighborhood involved a scammer who contacted a real estate agent in Pueblo wanting to sell a vacant lot. The scammer provided a copy of a driver’s license with the proper address, which is easy to do with Photoshop and other software. The real estate agent had several interested buyers and even an offer, but became suspicious when the purported owner couldn’t answer some questions about the property. Through another neighbor, the real estate agent called me, and I contacted the out-of-state owner to learn that he had no intention of selling the property. Tragically, the scam nearly succeeded.

Another case involved a person who learned that the vacant lot next door was for sale. He had been told by the owner he would never sell his lot without telling him. A simple call to the owner revealed that the lot was not for sale and a potential scam was averted.

Now to the nosey neighbors part. I am not proposing peeking into windows or unnecessarily watching your neighbors coming and going. Don’t be creepy. I am, however, proposing that you know your neighbors well enough to know if they are moving out of the house; or, if vacant, there are new residents and the owner just forgot to tell you. Many years ago, one of my neighbors moved here from California and built a new home. After moving in and getting settled, I noticed a moving van in his driveway. I knew he had already moved in so I was suspicious. I went up the driveway and learned from the truck driver that they were delivering some new furniture. My neighbor and friend sincerely thanked me and has reminded me of that incident many times.

In our neighborhood of 65 homes, we have an email roster for all the neighbors. I send out information about road work, bears in the neighborhood and other items of interest. We have a summer picnic and winter dessert social so we get to see each other at those events. We meet on the road during our walks and help each other with projects and tasks. We have a great neighborhood, and I think I would know if something unusual was happening at many of the homes. A nearby neighbor is an elderly lady in a retirement home whose home has been vacant for about three years. We watch the home every time we walk by, have a key to check if we have any concerns and can call her daughter anytime. When family comes to visit, they inform us they’re coming.

What is the bottom line? Know your nearby neighbors well enough that they will inform you if they will be gone for an extended time or are moving out. Put some tracks in their snowy driveway. Keep an eye on their house when you drive by. A few simple actions can prevent scams from happening, and you will be a better neighbor in the process.

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