News BriefTechnology

Escrow scams have grown by $950M in 2017

Scammers are hacking into agent email accounts to track transactions and closings

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Although technology has made real estate transactions quicker, more seamless and increasingly transparent, it has also made buyers and sellers vulnerable to hackers and scammers looking to make a quick buck.

In many cases, scams involve criminals posing as real estate agents asking naive buyers for an upfront fee for services in exchange for a quick turnaround time. Other tactics include sending fake emails from associations as a way to gain access to an agent’s personal information.

According to the Miami Herald, real estate agents and their clients have yet another form of fraud to be hypervigilant of: escrow scams.

Buyers lost a whopping $19 million from these schemes in 2016, but what’s even more alarming is the rate at which they’ve increased: This year alone, $969 million has been stolen from buyers — $950 million more than the year before.

Scammers are able to steal these funds by gaining access to a title company’s or agent’s email account and keeping track of upcoming closings. As the closing date nears, the scammer poses as the title company or escrow agent and asks the buyer to wire the needed funds to their account. Once the transfer is complete, the scammer shuts down the fraudulent email address and disappears.

Can you stop wire fraud in its tracks?

Although it’s difficult to recover funds after the transfer is complete, the FBI says buyers do have one weapon in their arsenal: the “Financial Fraud Kill Chain” (FFKC).

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The FBI says the transfer may be stopped by the consumer’s bank using the Kill Chain if:

  • the transfer amount is $50,000 or more
  • the wire transfer is international
  • a SWIFT recall notice has been initiated, or
  • the transfer has occurred within the past 72 hours

In order to initiate the FFKC, banks must provide 14 pieces of information, including the consumer’s information, the originating and beneficiary bank information, the SWIFT recall notice number and the wire amount.

Protecting buyers

Buyers can protect themselves by being aware of some telltale warning signs, such as sudden changes to instructions they’ve been given. Even if nothing seems wrong, the FBI suggests buyers confirm every email they receive via a phone call.

Lastly, if they feel they’re being scammed, they can send a report to the bureau’s internet complaint center.

Real estate agents and title companies can also do their part to decrease the risk; tech security training and implementing standard procedures can go a long way.

In August, five experts shared 26 ways to mitigate the risk of a tech breach in an interview with Inman. The tips included strengthening passwords and avoiding using the same password for all of your accounts. The experts also suggested using two-factor authentication, which asks for a code every time you log into an account on a new device.

Investing in strong antivirus and encryption services was another suggestion, as was coming up with a plan of action if a client’s information is compromised.

“Almost every breach boils down to a lack of appropriate policies and procedures: laying out how things are supposed to be done in the company, followed by contracts,” noted Matt Cohen, principal consultant at real estate software and consulting firm Clareity.

“You need tech security policies and procedures both for your internal staff and any contractors you’re using.”

Email Marian McPherson.