Real estate wire fraud is alive and well. What can you do to prevent it?

There are some red flags you can look for to prevent potential losses…

Real estate fraud isn’t just happening occasionally in the U.S. It’s happening every day.

According to an article by Forbes’ Aly Yale, the FBI reporting nearly $150 million in real estate fraud losses last year, with most of these losses happening because of a hacked email account or an abundance of publicly available data, allowing a fraudster to step in and wreak havoc.

Evidently, the attacher learns about an escrow transaction’s details usually by gaining access to a real estate agent, title agent or an attorney’s email and will use that information to communicate with the prospective homebuyer via a nearly identical email address. Then it’s easy for them to insert themselves into the conversation, usually providing fraudulent wiring instructions in an attempt to steal a down payment, closing costs or both, according to the article.

Cybersecurity experts agree that there are some red flags buyers, sellers, and lenders can look for to prevent potential losses. First, the fraudster may give him/herself away by asking you when you’re going to send the wire in an effort to move the money as fast as possible to avoid detection.

Whether you are an agent or a homebuyer/seller reading this, know that there is now a book written about real estate wire fraud. Tom Cronkright, the CEO of the identity verification solution CertfID and the victim of wire fraud himself, published Wire Fraud in Real Estate: The Complete Guide, delving into some of the ways these emails and transactions are hacked. He goes on to talk about some bad habits, such as failing to use two-factor authentication and secure passwords. If Realtors, lenders, buyers, and sellers learned to use these on a broader scale, much of this could be prevented.

Beware the PDF attachment. Real estate agents often freely send around documents containing incredibly personal and sensitive information — things like the price, deposit terms, loan amounts, closing dates, etc. Instead of sharing these documents via email it’s advisable to share them through a transaction management system or, harking back to the past, via human courier.

Voice-verification may sound tedious, but it’s vital when it comes to wiring instructions. Before sending a wire transfer, call the recipient to verify the account information. Then call the sender of an email to verify that they sent it to you, especially if it requests that you do something unusual or that you forward sensitive information, says one real estate attorney.

It’s sad that we can no longer trust email, but it’s true, especially at closing time. Cronkright says, ”Beware of any new or changed information. You can’t trust wiring information that comes over email. You cannot trust changed wiring information. The probability of that changing is so low. It’s just not going to happen—not in a 30-day window.” 

Always, always confirm that the email address is the same email that you’ve been corresponding with since the beginning of the transaction — and look at it with a fine-tooth comb to see if a letter, a number or a character in it has changed. Look for inconsistencies not only in email addresses, but also in the name attached to the email address and the phone number listed in the email signature. Whenever you’re unsure about something, call the person by finding a public phone number (not the number on the document) via a web search or a phone number you’ve used before.

If you unwittingly get caught up in and become a victim of real estate wire fraud, time is of the essence when trying to recover your losses. Experts say to tell your bank immediately, alert your local law enforcement as well as the FBI (FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center), and tell everyone that you’ve been in contact with for the transaction itself. The sooner you do this, the greater the chances of success of recovering your money.

Cronkright’s When Minutes Matter contains a recovery guide with a full breakdown on the no-delay steps to take.

Source: Forbes, TBWS