Scams to Steal Real Estate Funds Increasing

September 25, 2017

Real estate agents, title officers and consumers are being targeted by criminals who obtain personal information and use it to attempt to steal money that changes hands in property transactions.

If the perpetrators succeed, once that money is gone, it can be difficult or impossible to get back. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself.

Wire fraud schemes, which usually start with a compromised e-mail account, are becoming more common, according to the FBI. Here’s how they usually work: Hackers break into email systems and monitor correspondence about real estate transactions. Then, posing as one of the parties, the bad guys use the stolen information to intervene and switch account numbers or payment methods to divert the money.

The FBI’s complaint center for internet crimes reported a 480 percent rise in title companies reporting e-mail compromise scams in 2016, and the trend seems to be continuing. From October 2013 to December 2016, these thefts resulted in losses worldwide of $5.3 billion in 40,203 reported incidents.

No one is immune to these attempts. One of our offices recently reported that someone posing as a client who just closed on the sale of property called and tried convince our staff to cancel the check the client received and instead wire the money to a bank account.

Of course, the would-be thief’s plan failed, because complying with the request would have gone against our policies. The customer later confirmed he hadn’t made such a phone call.

Long & Foster’s family of settlement companies adheres to the American Land Title Association’s best practices, which say members must have programs and procedures in place to protect non-public personal information, as the law requires.

We can’t always control what happens outside of our protected systems, so it pays to educate clients, too. Long & Foster settlement companies give clients very specific instructions about closing. Our companies won’t make a last-minute change, or any change, to the agreed upon transaction without securely verifying identities and accounts. Checking identities and account numbers more than once at every step is now the standard.

While the industry works to raise awareness about the prevalence of online predators, there are measures everyone can take to increase security.

First, be sure to work with a title company that has safeguards in place to verify clients’ identities and accounts multiple times before pushing transactions through. Ask what measures they are taking to keep transactions safe and whether they follow industry best practices.

Second, companies and individuals can take steps to keep their personal information out of bad guys’ hands, especially when it comes to email security. Using secure networks and strong passwords are two simple security measures that help thwart thieves.

People who intend to do harm often break in by getting you to open an email that looks like it’s from someone you know. Delete those messages, and never click any link you’re not sure about.

Technology has made our jobs a lot easier and in many cases allows us to close property transactions more quickly and efficiently. But it also requires us all to be vigilant in keeping wrong-doers out of our virtual space.