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Real Estate Wire Transfer Fraud is Real

By Brian Kline | July 24, 2021

The American Land Title Association (ALTA) says that more than 11,600 people fell victim to real estate wire transfer fraud in 2019, resulting in more than $221 million being stolen. The scams involve huge amounts of money. The scams are sophisticated. People you would never think could be scammed are being caught up in these scams. Seldom is the money recovered once it is deposited in the wrong bank account.

How the Scams are Setup

Anecdotally, this scam seems to succeed most when borrowers have an urgency to act fast. The scam is not particularly complicated on the part of the bad guys. Their goal is to insert themselves in the closing process right at the point when the buyer is about to transfer closing funds to the escrow account. The fact that the money is supposed to be going into a secure escrow account can lull otherwise cautious people into a false sense of security. If the scammer is successful, the money will be diverted away from the secure escrow account to an account that only the scammer controls. This can all happen in a matter of a couple of hours (or less), beginning with a single mouse click by the victim. This allows the scammer to closely monitor the fake account for only a short amount of time. The moment the money is deposited in the fake account (but legitimate appearing), the scammer immediately transfers the funds to an overseas bank account where the bank of deposit and law enforcement are unable to retrieve the funds from.

And... the scammers have become more sophisticated. All that the scammer needs to do is hack into the email account of your real estate agent, escrow officer, or anyone in the loop for the escrow instructions (it could be your own email account that is hacked). Hacking into any one of these accounts provides the scammer with the needed information such as legitimate escrow account number, transfer dates and times, and the transfer amount. Hacking one email account can provide a thread of emails between all the involved parties who are exchanging information.

How the Scam Typically Works

With the legitimate email information in hand, the scammer creates a new email account that looks almost identical to an email account that the homebuyer expects to receive final instructions from for the wire transfer. For instance, the legitimate email address could be Jane Doe@ABCescrow. The fake email set up by the scammer could be Jane Doe@ABCescrow1 or it could be Jane Doe@ABDescrow or any other very minor variation. At a glance, the homebuyer doesn’t notice the minor change in the address.

The scammer then only needs to send the buyer a simple change of instructions. The instructions can vary but might be as simple as, “out of urgency, we must now use USA Trust Bank. Please immediately wire transfer $200,000 into escrow account #xxxajax.” This is NOT a legitimate escrow account. This account is solely controlled by the scammer. As soon as the funds are transferred, the scammer transfers the money overseas to an account that it cannot be retrieved from. With a single mouse click, a future homebuyer can lose $200,000 or more that they have been saving for years to buy a home.

Scammers are constantly adding new levels of sophistication. Because the scammer has access to all the information in the hacked emails, the fake email can contain information that makes it convincing that the fake email is legitimate. The scammer knows your name, your real estate agent’s name, and the escrow officer’s name. The fake email can say the everything has been coordinated and approved by the other people. The scammer knows exactly how much money is supposed to be transferred. They know what bank and account number the money is supposed to go to. Scammers use this information to sound convincing with any of many different statements that could be, “The original Bank Escrow is having computer problems, because to the urgency of your transaction, we are switching to XYZ Trust Bank.”

There is a relatively new twist of sophistication that scammers have added. The scammers are copying and pasting the entire thread of emails between the legitimate people into the fake email. The old thread of emails appears below the new instructions. This makes it look like everyone is in the loop with the new instructions. But everyone is not. Only you are receiving the fake instructions.

You can be sure that the scammers will soon find new ways to try convincing you that the fake instructions are legitimate.

ALTA Offers These Tips to Protect Yourself from Wire Transfer Fraud

It’s easy to think you won’t fall for this kind of scam, but these schemes are sophisticated and often appear as legitimate conversations with your real estate or settlement agent. Here are the minimum steps that you need to take.

  • Early in the process, identify trusted individuals prior to closing and write down their names and contact information. [Use this contact information rather than new contact information from an email.]
  • Confirm the closing and payment instructions twice in person or verbally with a known phone number.
  • Avoid using phone numbers or links in an email as scammers can spoof them.
  • Be mindful of phone conversations as some criminals call and pose as your trusted professional.
  • Do not email financial information.

You may also want to review information that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides on the subject.

The ultimate cost could be the loss of your life savings.

Please leave a comment sharing your experience or advice on the subject.

Also, our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions, inquiries, or article ideas to [email protected].

Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

Brian Kline has been investing in real estate for more than 30 years and writing about real estate investing for seven years with articles listed on Yahoo Finance, Benzinga, and uRBN. Brian is a regular contributor at Realty Biz News
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