“There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase closely associated with P. T. Barnum, an American showman of the mid-19th century, although there is no evidence that he actually said it. Early examples of its use are found among gamblers and confidence men.
No matter who uttered the phrase, seniors are being targeted in a new real estate scam that seems to prove it. Scammers are having some success in getting seniors to sign over their home for far below market value.
Mary Ann Welch, 70, shared with Capital Public Radio how she received a letter in her mailbox that offered to buy her Sunnyvale, Calif., home for $750,000. The letter included paperwork for her to sign and consent to sell. Welch had not put the house up for rent or for sale. The two-bedroom home is within walking distance of Apple, Google and LinkedIn, and is valued at more than $1.5 million.
“I saw the contract for me to sign and I was furious,” Welch told Capital Public Radio. “If I had Alzheimer’s or if I was demented at all, I would have signed it thinking I would get all this money. If they’re doing it to me, they’re going to be doing it to others.”
Cherie Bourlard, Santa Clara County’s deputy district attorney, says they’ve seen an uptick in cases that involve direct solicitations to elderly homeowners that contain offers well below market value for their home.
Housing markets where prices have risen quickly may be most prime for the scam. Homeowners may “have no idea of the value of the homes they’re sitting on,” Bourlard says. “They remember buying their home for $40,000 but in these crazy upswings of market value, they have no idea their property might be worth $800,000, $1 million, $2 million.”
The scams targeting the elderly may not be voidable either for those who sign. “They might not clearly understand what they’re doing,” Bourlard says. “But they have enough [mental] capacity to where the transaction is not voidable. Studies show as we age, we become less savvy in financial transactions.”