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'Land Men' scam unraveled

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Find forgotten properties with owners who are absent or unaware they even own the land, and sell the gas rights to big drilling firms. The scheme sounds simple, but in this case, an elaborate web of lies and deceit eventually brought an end to what  had become a million-dollar con job.

The suspects got the idea for this scam while they were working as so-called "Land Men." Their job was to secure the natural gas drilling rights for legitimate companies. But claiming they had drilling rights - when, in fact, they didn't - proved to be more lucrative. It yielded them more than $2.4 million over a year and half.

"Most of the people that truly did own the mineral rights were unaware that they owned the mineral rights because it had been transferred to them to their family generations ago," explained U.S. Postal Inspector Randy Hayden.

So, the suspects seized upon this information and decided to claim the rights for themselves.

"They would create different company names, open bank accounts, open post office boxes in these company names," he added.

Then, the suspects created fictitious documents.

"At the back of the document on the signature page, they would just forge the true mineral rights owners' signatures and then they would also create a fictitious notary stamp," said Hayden.

The documents were then turned over to a deeds office. at this point, the bogus company could sell the drilling rights to big firms. 

"It was quite lucrative," Hayden said. "These energy companies were signing people leases for oil and gas rights for approximately $3,500 an acre. So 100 acres you sign a lease agreement, and that is $350,000."

Eventually, the scam failed. The suspects pleaded guilty and were sent to federal prison. They were also ordered to return money to the victims.

Postal inspectors say there is a lesson for all consumers.

"If you're purchasing a big tract of property in a rural area, ask a few questions about the mineral rights underneath because it's not always included in the transfer of the surface rights," Hayden advised.