If you are thinking about buying or selling a property, you need to be on high alert to this massive cyber crime targeting people like you. The FBI is working overtime to stop this growing crime but the best defense is you knowing about it and being proactive in watching for some red flags.
Here is what’s going on: Buyer and sellers get into contract for a property and when they do, money is exchanged. Years ago, it was more common that when you were buying a home, you could send a check or money order to an escrow company for the deposit and down payment for the purchase of a home. Today, it is more common that people wire money which is the term for electronically transferring it between two people or businesses. Criminals have used this wiring of money as an opportunity to step in and steal it by falsifying their identify over an email as someone such as your real estate agent, escrow office or lender. Once they have practically identically copied someone’s email address, email signature and even business logos and photos on emails, they send this “copy cat” email to buyers and sellers giving them false wiring instructions. Buyers and sellers are sometimes completely unaware this scam exists so when they receive an email that looks exactly like their agent’s, lender’s or escrow officer’s they don’t think twice about it’s validity. Here’s an example of how this crime might go down….
Buyer finds the home of their dreams and gets an offer accepted. Once the offer is accepted, buyer is contacted by the escrow company and sent a packet of papers with information about their purchase as well as instructions on how to wire their initial deposit into escrow. Buyer is now also in constant contact with lender and agent during the purchase and a lot of this is over email. Cyber criminal has already looked up real estate agents, escrow officer and lenders and sets their sites on many of them by sending an email that is a scam where there is likely an attachment or link that, when it is opened, allows the criminal to take over the email address and criminal can read emails to find out who is about to buy and what their contact information is. Criminal then sets up email that will look practically identical with the email address, email signature and more being replicated by the criminal. One of the ways they get the buyer’s attention is by saying that funds must be transferred immediately and the criminal then attaches wiring instructions that actually go to their own bank. They even change the email signature so that when the buyer thinks to call and question this, the buyer reads the phone number attached with the email and actually speaks to the criminal who is disguising themselves as the agent, lender or escrow officer. Buyer then transfers money as directed which, for most people, is hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. Money is sent to criminal’s account. Criminal immediately has money and money is gone. FBI can sometimes stop the transfer only if they are notified immediately but sometimes this doesn’t even help as the criminals have learned that if they do this crime near a holiday weekend such as the upcoming 4th of July, that may tie the hands of the banks who will be closed and also the buyer may not realize money didn’t reach the right hands until the 3 day weekend is over and too much time has passed at that point.
Here are 8 tips to help keep you from being a victim of this crime:
1. Tell each and every person you know who is thinking about buying or selling about this. Spread the word as much as you can!
2. Have a conversation with your real estate agent, escrow officer, lawyer and lender about what they suggest you can do to avoid having this happen.
3. Some people are choosing to go back to the old ways of using checks/money orders. Talk to your agent and escrow officer and find out if this is possible and if so, what you need to do to make that work. (there may be time constraints on having the money released in check form that may conflict with contract deadlines)
4. Have a phone conversation with your agent and have them verbally give you the lender and escrow officer’s contact information and store it in your phone and only use that, rather than referring to the email contact info when reaching out to them.
5. Be on alert for emails in which anyone is asking you to rush and send money. This is the time to pick up the phone, or walk into the office of the person who sent you that email and verify it.
6. Be on alert for any changes in wiring instructions sent to your email
7. Visit the FBI’s website to find out more information about this https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/international-bec-takedown-061118
8. Lastly, go back to #1 and spread the word about this as much as you can!