One of the urgent issues that has developed in real estate, and in pretty much any area where large amounts of money are being transferred via wire, is wire fraud. We are all learning to be defensive in what we open that comes into our email in boxes. Never open a link from someone you don’t know, that sort of thing. But the wire fraud scam is very clever. Here is how it works. Thieves hack into email accounts and look for activity that could be a good target. Things like emails from Realtors and Title Companies. They then do an outstanding job of duplicating the official look of the people involved and they watch and wait for when it looks like the sale is coming to the point of money exchanging hands. Then they strike by sending out an official-looking email that tells the recipient to wire their funds needed to close to an account that they have set up. Being a good party to the transaction, the victim wires the requested funds. Boom. They’ve just been ripped off.
The biggest victim I’ve heard of using this technique was Southern Oregon State University. In the course of building a new building on campus they fell victim to someone claiming to be a contractor who needed to be paid. The loss was over a million dollars.
So beware. Realtors and Title companies know this is going on and are taking strong measures to protect clients. I personally have set up a double layer password system that requires a code sent to my cell phone to access my email account. From my end I am working very hard to not be hacked. But there are a few things that you can do as well.
1. Protect email accounts: Perpetrators of wire fraud often carry out their crimes after having hacked an email account. Use a strong password, change it periodically and use two factor authentication on any accounts used in connection with real estate closings. Customers should be strongly encouraged to do the same.
2. Call, don’t email: Customers should confirm all wiring instructions verbally before transferring funds. They should independently verify the phone number of the settlement agent or closing attorney (e.g. website, purchase contract, business card, etc.).
3. Be suspicious: It’s not common for wiring instructions and payment info to change. It’s also not common for the lender to provide wire instructions. A good mortgage company will never provide wire instructions to its homebuyers.
4. Confirm it all: Customers should ask their bank to confirm not only the account number but also the ABA routing number and the name on the account before sending a wire.
5. Verify immediately: Customers should contact the settlement agent or closing attorney to validate that the funds were received. Detecting that funds were sent to the wrong account within 24 hours offers the best chance of recovering the money.
6. Forward, don’t reply: When responding to an email, click on forward instead of reply and then start typing in the person’s email address. Criminals use email addresses that are very similar to the real one for a company. By typing the email addresses, it’s easier to identify if you’re a target of fraud.
7. Use a cashier’s check instead: Customers should consider not wiring funds at all. They should speak with the settlement agent or closing attorney about the procedures for using a cashier’s check instead of sending their funds by wire.
Be smart and be safe out there.