WINTER PARK, Fla. – An unidentified person fraudulently posed as a Central Florida homeowner and tried selling a house without the real owner’s knowledge, according to a complaint filed with the Winter Park Police Department.
The imposter retained the services of a local realtor to put the home on the market, News 6 learned, but the scheme was stopped before anyone bought the property.
“His endgame was clearly to sell our house,” Marc Winchester, the homeowner said. “Perhaps [the imposter] would not make it all the way to closing, where real identification might be required. But at least he could collect a substantial deposit.”
Winchester was spending time at his family’s second home out-of-state last month when caretakers who look after his Winter Park house alerted him to a problem there.
“[The caretakers] called us and asked, ‘Have you changed the locks on the doors?’” Winchester said. “Their key, which was provided by us, would not work.”
The caretakers later found a small box attached to the front gate, like the kind used by realtors, containing a key that opened the newly replaced door locks.
“We were obviously very alarmed by that because we had no idea what was going on,” Winchester said.
When Winchester checked video footage from the home’s surveillance cameras recorded a few days earlier, he saw an unidentified woman and man walking through his house.
“It’s a very disturbing and sick feeling,” Winchester said. “I just knew they were up to no good.”
Winchester flew to Central Florida the following morning to meet with police and file a report.
Two days later, he said a realtor working on behalf of ERA Grizzard Real Estate arrived at his home, along with a photographer, with plans to take photos and videos of the property before it was put up for sale.
“[The realtor] says ‘Are you Marc Winchester?’ And I said, ‘I am.’ And I said, ‘This house is not, and has never been, for sale’,” Winchester said.
According to Winchester, the realtor had been in contact with a prospective seller who was fraudulently posing as him.
“She told me she had a real estate agreement with someone claiming to be ‘Marc Winchester’ who she had only communicated with virtually,” the homeowner said.
Winchester said the realtor primarily used email and the text message application WhatsApp to communicate with the imposter.
“My understanding is that there was never any face-to-face contact and there was never any valid governmental proof of identity provided [such as] driver’s license, passport, et cetera,” Winchester said.
The realtor acknowledged being the woman who appeared in his home surveillance video days earlier, according to Winchester.
She was joined that day by a locksmith who was hired by the realtor because the imposter was unable to provide a key, according to Winchester.
“She had gotten this individual’s authority to come change the locks on our home,” Winchester said. “We wouldn’t have been able to get into our own house.”
After the realtor left Winchester’s home, someone else working on behalf of the company placed an ERA Grizzard Real Estate sign in Winchester’s front yard.
“They sent my level of distress to even greater heights after seeing that,” Winchester said. “This is just over the top.”
Representatives from ERA Grizzard Real Estate have not disputed Winchester’s account.
“We regret that this incident occurred, and we have taken immediate steps to advance the education and awareness of our agents and employees so as to avoid its recurrence,” Thomas D. “Gus” Grizzard, the real estate company’s owner said. “We are grateful that there was no loss of money or property.”
Per company policy, Grizzard said the realtor was placed on administrative leave while an internal investigation is completed. She was later fired.
“Fraud and cybercrime are an increasing threat to all industries,” Grizzard said. “Criminals have more resources at their disposal to put consumers and businesses alike at risk. As a member of the business community for more than 50 years, we have always made it our company’s mission to create processes and safeguards to protect our clients from any threat to a fair and accurate real estate transaction.”
Grizzard vowed that his family-run business would continue to serve clients with integrity and dedication.
“We continue to implement processes and educational resources for our affiliated agents to increase awareness of new fraud and cybercrime trends and their growing sophistication that can affect businesses and consumers in Central Florida,” Grizzard said. “This is not an issue confined to our market or our industry, but one that impacts and threatens us all. As a leader in real estate, I am committed to engaging with the state Realtor Association and colleagues across the country to raise awareness of the threat of fraud and cybercrime and help others be vigilant against their detrimental impact.”
Although Winchester understands that the realtor was targeted by a cybercriminal, he believes the real estate company should have done more to confirm the imposter’s identity.
“Clearly the scammer is the person who perpetrated this,” Winchester said. “However, to me, it is a dereliction of duty [to enter a home] without any kind of verification that they actually own the house.”