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Zoiks! Real estate scams up 480%

by Michael H. Wasserman

You read that right, A 480 percent increase according to a May 2017 PSA from the FBI. Its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Scammers are targeting wire transfers with alarming frequency. As state law mandates the use of wire transfers for most real estate transactions, it's vital that every buyer, seller and professional be vigilant to prevent fraud. Here's what to look for and what you can do to help protect your money - your deal.

Check the Source: Wire transfer fraud typically starts with a "phishing" email that looks ok at first blush, but is a fake. Real-looking but fraudulent emails may contain:

A slightly different email address. It could be just one character off. Or using a correct name but from a free account, like gmail, aol or yahoo.

Legit-looking logos and email footers. Remember, logos can be downloaded from public websites from title companies and banks.

A working phone number for confirmation. So, if/when you call the provided number to confirm the transaction, a scammer will answer and try to make the transaction sound legitimate.

Correct names of the parties and/or properties involved. It might contain recognizable information and names that can trick people to click into a fraudulent situation.

This is scary stuff. So please, throughout real estate transactions (and really, every day) scrutinize your emails to make sure they are legitimate-particularly the ones that ask you for money or to download something.

Listen carefully to "official" phone calls: A scammer may act like they are calling from or working with your lawyer, bank, a lender or title company. They're real job is to get your personal information and account numbers-so they can create a wire transfer. Or to convince you to send your funds to a wrong account. Unless you already know the caller, do not share or confirm any information. Hang up (you can still be polite, of course) and confirm by calling back through a number you know is legitimate-not one they provide or call your attorney.

Trust but Verify: Make sure the wire instructions you receive are authentic. One common scam starts with instructions that appear legit, but direct you to wire funds to a fake bank account. Once the money is transferred, the scammer immediately withdrawals the funds, closes the account and oozes back under the rock they came from…with the stolen money…before the theft has been detected.

Beware Last Minute Changes: Whether by phone call or email, fraudsters build pressure on their victims by timing these messages for the end of day before or early on the morning of closing (Nice touch, eh?). Posing as lawyers or title company agents, they will describe an urgent need to provide corrected or updated wire transfer instructions.

Stay Out of Trouble by Keeping these Three Things in Mind:

  1. Be mindful of the timing and process for your closing. Know exactly when/where/how wire transfers will occur. Put then in your calendar. 
  2. Consider changing bank and other pertinent financial account passwords-and using complicated passwords. You might do this at the beginning of a real estate transaction to safeguard your accounts from any previous hacking. 
  3. Whenever there is even the slightest doubt or suspicion, confirm all wire instructions with a trusted party. Don't feel pressured to send a wire transfer if you have ANY suspicions. It's simply not worth it.
Sadly, everyone needs to be vigilant when it comes to online wire transfers, particularly in real estate dealings where so much money must be moved into and out of title company escrow. Watch for fake emails, suspicious phone calls, and last minute changes. Always be careful how you share financial information. (Tell your parents, too.)

We truly are our own best defense.

Here's my (real!) phone number, if you have any questions:

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