According to statistics from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), real estate is the second most targeted industry for cyber-attacks. The FBI reported almost $150 million in real-estate-related fraud in 2018, with scams aimed at the industry rising more than 1,000 percent since 2015. Because of the sheer size of the real estate landscape, the number of transactions, and the dollar value they represent, industry professionals, clients, and companies are all prime targets.
In order to protect yourself, you need to know about some of the most common ways that buyers and sellers fall victim to fraudulent bad actors. We’ll also look at some common-sense ways that you can prepare for your real estate transaction and protect your personal and financial information in order to stay safe.
Mortgage fraud generally occurs during the escrow process and involves the theft of information and mimicking of entities involved in the transaction. Hackers access the email account of a buyer, seller, or agent, gathering information that they then use to spoof one of the participants in the transaction.
For example, a hacker finds out your closing date and that Premier Title is conducting the title search and closing process for your home purchase. He or she then sets up a website and URL using the same logo and street address under the name Premiere Title—notice the extra “e”.
They then send you an email that looks much like the ones you’ve already received, but under the new name, and redirect you to the spoofed website. There you find wiring information that fraudulently instructs you to send your down payment to them, instead of to Premier Title. By the time the mistake is discovered, your hard-earned down payment is long-gone.
General Financial Fraud
According to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN), fraudulent schemes related to real estate transactions can include any or all of the following:
- Money laundering schemes aimed at title and escrow companies or using such companies as a front for illegal activity
- Mortgage modification and foreclosure avoidance scams aimed at distressed homeowners
- Home equity conversion or reverse mortgage scams aimed at elderly and financially distressed homeowners.
In addition, schemes frequently take place around home repairs and improvements, whether when preparing the home for sale or as a response to the home inspection. In some cases, scammers pose as contractors and demand payment for repairs that have already been completed, threatening to put a lien on the home or call a halt to the closing. It is important to keep careful records of any work that is done on the home and to communicate with your real estate agent if there are any questions or concerns about a contact you have received.
Best Practices for Protecting Yourself and Avoiding Fraud
There are a variety of ways to protect yourself and your information from perpetrators of these types of fraudulent schemes. Preparation—before, during, and after your real estate transaction—is the best way to ensure a positive outcome.
Check, then double-check, information.
When you receive a request for information, especially if it is unexpected or alarming, check every detail of the email, including the address it was sent from, contact information, and spelling of names. Don’t click on links or download files from an unsolicited email or from one that you’re unsure about.
Communicate with and through your real estate agent.
Part of the value your real estate agent provides is as a conduit and buffer between you and the other parties involved in your real estate transaction. Reach out to your agent consistently, and let him or her provide you with pertinent information. If communication flows primarily through your agent, you’re less likely to be fooled by an unsolicited email or phone call.
Talk to your title company.
Before you decide what title company to work with, ask them about the cybersecurity protections they have in place, including cyber fraud insurance in the event of a fraudulent financial transaction. Make sure that they will have your back and protect your funds if needed.
Don’t allow anyone to rush you.
One of the ways that scammers motivate you to take action is to create a false sense of urgency. They may do this through a tight turnaround time or by telling you that something must take place immediately. While time is of the essence in real estate transactions, you always have time to consult with your real estate agent, lawyer, or CPA in the case of a transaction-related demand.
Don’t allow anyone to threaten you.
Similarly, a false sense of urgency can be conveyed by telling you that you’ll lose the house, your closing date will fall through, or your mortgage will be denied. In the case of tax fraud, you may be told that you will be imprisoned or fined if you fail to comply with the scammer’s demands. Contact your real estate agent, legal counsel, or a financial advisor before taking any action.
Don’t send personal or financial information through email.
One of the easiest ways to hack your transaction-related information is through email. Rather than having sensitive information transmitted via email, ask your real estate agent about secure transaction coordination through a cloud-based management system. Alternatively, you can set up a secure Dropbox account and share it with your real estate agent, lender, and closing officer in order to ensure that all documents are stored securely.
When in doubt, ask your agent.
We can’t say it enough: if you receive a communication, demand, or request for information from someone other than your trusted real estate agent, contact him or her immediately. Your real estate professional is educated on the latest schemes in your local market and can help you navigate your transaction safely.
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