A brother and sister from California have been arrested on suspected involvement in a $6 million scam listing and selling homes without the owners’ consent.

On Thursday, California authorities arrested Torrance’s Adolfo Schoneke, 43, and Walnut’s Bianca Gonzalez, 38, on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office. Schoneke and Gonzalez pleaded not guilty to the nine charges and a trial date has been set for June 1. A hearing for Schoneke will take place on April 9 while Gonzalez’s has been scheduled for April 13.

According to a statement from the U.S Attorney’s Office, Schoneke and Gonzalez ran a number of real estate and escrow companies under different names and advertised properties below market rates in a number of California cities.  They reportedly used other agents’ brokers’ licenses to put the homes up on the multiple listings service and arranged everything from showings to down payment offers. Some victims received fake short sale approval letters while others made down payments that they were then unable to cancel when they were not given the keys for months or even years.

Schoneke and Gonzalez even convinced homeowners into allowing home showings, although it was unclear under what pretense the owners agreed to open their homes to strangers.

“The co-conspirators allegedly were able to string along the victims – sometimes for years – by telling them closings were being delayed because lenders needed to approve the purported short sales,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a released statement.

The scam, which the suspects allegedly ran from 2014 to 2016, cost the victims a combined $6 million in losses. If convicted, Schoneke and Gonzalez face sentences of up to 162 years in federal prison.

Given California’s exploding real estate values and historic shortage of inventory, new listings tend to immediately attract attention and often get multiple offers from buyers feeling pressure to act fast to not lose the property. But while low prices can make potential investors and homeowners act fast, a disproportionately low price for a given market increases the likelihood that the property may be a scam — experts encourage communicating with the seller in-person before making any large transfers and not believing claims that a house is “unavailable” for viewing.

“In this hot real estate market, would-be buyers are anxious to get a house,” real estate safety expert Tracey Hawkins told Inman. “Many may act carelessly in an effort to secure a deal in this highly competitive environment. This behavior can lead to them dropping their guard. Buyers should research the owners of houses when they are serious about a home. They should search the owners by name, using Google and other people search websites. They need to verify that the person they are negotiating with is the legal owner.”

Email Veronika Bondarenko

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