Warning for Boston Condo Buyers: Wire fraud is on the rise
Written by Richard Hopen from COMPASS Short Hills NJ:
When my wife and I sold our house in 2017, our $239,000 mortgage payoff was stolen.
The money was never recovered. We were victims of real estate wire fraud.
I’m not only a victim, I’m also a real estate agent and lawyer. And shame on me for not knowing about wire fraud when I sold my house. Real estate wire fraud is perpetrated by cyber criminals who exploit the trust between home buyers and sellers and their real estate agents, title companies, lawyers, and mortgage lenders. Criminals steal home deposits, down payments, and mortgage payoffs by accessing and monitoring email accounts of the parties in a transaction.
When a criminal finds an email with attached wiring instructions, they change the depository account number and email the fraudulent wiring instructions to the person who will wire the funds. If the target is duped, the money will be wired into the criminal’s account. Accessing email accounts is easy for cyber-criminals and opportunities to commit the crime are unlimited. According to a 2021 ALTA survey, 1 in 3 real estate transactions are targeted.
Real estate transactions are ripe conditions for thieves. Each transaction involves multiple parties, working under pressure to meet the closing deadline. Many of the parties share information over unsecured email accounts that can lead a savvy criminal to the wiring instructions. Home buyers and sellers are vulnerable, and real estate agents need to do much more than include wire fraud warnings on emails or have customers sign wire fraud disclosures. At a minimum, every seller and buyer should know about the risk of real estate wire fraud and how to prevent it.
Rich Hopen of COMPASS Short Hills, NJ has worked closely with ALTA to create www.stopwirefraud.org. He has sat on a wire fraud panel with a U.S. Senator; participated in a roundtable discussion with the FBI, ALTA, the Mortgage Bankers Association, American Bankers Association, and NAR; was interviewed and quoted by HousingWire and the Wall Street Journal; and has spoken to many real estate offices and organizations.
Another thought: Avoid Friday closings to help stop wire fraud.
Friday is the most highly targeted day of the week for wire fraud at real estate closings, because the next business day is on Monday, and there is only a 24 hour window to identify a fraudulent transfer and reverse it, and criminals know and exploit this weakness.
Always tell your clients to follow up with their bank in the hours after closing to be sure wire transfers were done but to also check very first thing the next morning. If the next morning is Saturday, there is no live person at the bank to follow up on the wire, and by Monday, the window to reverse it is past.
Boston condos for sale
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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.
Anecdotally, this scam seems to succeed most when Boston condo 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 Boston real estate 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.
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.
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.
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.
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Boston condo buyers: Exercise extreme caution
Exercise extreme caution when dealing with wired funds in a Boston condo for sale transaction. Wire fraud is very much alive and well, and I’ve been hearing unfortunate stories from my colleagues recounting big money losses due to fraud activity.
When you’re buying or selling a Boston condo for sale, you’re dealing with a Boston condo broker or lawyer/ escrow company that holds transaction funds in a neutral account. Buyer and sellers make use of wired funds. Buyers wire deposits into an escrow account, as well as the balance of their down payment a couple days before the escrow closes. And sellers provide wiring instructions to the title company so the latter can wire the sale proceeds. Boston downtown condo prices being what they are, the sums of money are usually large.
Boston condo email scams
I’ve been hearing tales of Boston condo buyers receiving emails–allegedly from their escrow officers–instructing them to disregard previous wiring information and requesting that buyers instead wire funds to a new account. That’s a huge red flag, but you may not pick up on it if you’ve never been involved with a purchase.
And hackers are great at creating emails that look exactly like the messages a buyer has been receiving from an escrow company. Hackers can intercept email chains and your funds may end up in a fraudulent account. That’s a lot of money to lose.