An Orange County realtor is accused of scamming homebuyers and stealing more than $1 million in deposits for properties which California real estate officials say she had no right to sell.
The NBC4 I-Team received emails and calls from buyers and realtors saying they'd been duped. They say the woman at the center of this scheme promised to refund their money but never did, or their checks bounced.
In one case, a home in Fontana was about go to into foreclosure. It was listed at $315,000 in a neighborhood of homes worth more than $400,000.
Jesse Lawler said everything seemed to be on the up and up.
His contractor-client put $5,000 down as a deposit, or so called earnest money.
"He was buying this for primary residence so we drove by the house," he said.
But Lawler says the deal kept getting delayed, so he went to Yelp to check out the listing agent.
"I started reading it and my stomach... hits the floor," he said. "In real estate you shouldn't have to Yelp somebody. That's why we're licensed."
Review after review claimed the agent Laura Preciado of AE Real Estate had kept deposits from other homebuyers.
There was no answer when the NBC I-Team knocked on the door of her Fullerton office. She also didn't respond to emails.
In April, Preciado was charged with 11 counts of grand theft. She denied every allegation and pleaded not guilty to every count.
The California Department of Real Estate has filed against her too, for allegedly taking multiple deposits on properties she had no right to sell.
In one example from the lawsuit, she allegedly collected nearly $130,000 from one property.
She would take the money and return it but those check would bounce. And of course, the fear at (the Department of Real Estate) is she's taking from Peter to pay Paul," said special investigator Carlo H-Banki.
The four-bedroom, two-bath Fontana home Lawler's client wanted to buy is no longer listed for sale. Neighbors say it's been in foreclosure several times.
"We're not going to get any money back. It's not going to come back from her. We're too far down on the line of her scheme to get any money back," Lawler said of his client's $5,000 loss.
Lawler said his client dreamed of buying the Fontana property — his first home. Lawler said he felt so badly, he refunded the $5,000 out of his own pocket.
The California Department of Real Estate has several warnings and things to watch for when house hunting:
- Make checks out to a bank or business, like an escrow company — not a person.
- Do your own fact finding: Don't just wire money. You can always start by Googling the name of a realtor.
The California Department of Real Estate has a recovery fund which looks at these situations on a case-by-case basis. For more, visit this website.