The National Association of Realtors – NAR – recently issued a warning about phishing scams that are targeting the real estate business. A recent report from the cybersecurity firm eSentire found that real estate was the second most-targeted industry hit by malware events in the second quarter of 2018.
These scams target both Realtors and clients and are quite diverse in nature. Many of them attempt to get the email recipient to wire transfer money, often using Western Union. In one growing scam, for example, scammers infiltrate the email account of a real estate professional – a Realtor, mortgage loan officer or processor, transaction coordinator, attorney, title company – and send out a professional looking scam email to a client, redirecting them to wire transfer funds for the closing or earnest money to a fraudulent account. Funds that are transferred are nearly impossible to track once they are deposited.
Some email scams don’t target money. Instead they try to get the victim to reveal personal information such as social security numbers, bank accounts, or even W2 tax forms. This way the scammer can steal the identity of the individual, often apply for credit in their name. Needless to say, this can come at a very inopportune time if you are trying to close on a house!
From 2015 to 2017, the FBI reports a 110 percent rise in the number of such scams involving real estate transactions.
How do you keep safe? The FBI offers some of the following suggestions:
Be wary of communication that is exclusively over email. Scammers will take public information available on real estate listing sites and use it to then target victims. They may see listings that are “under contract” and then use the contact information of the real estate agent to insert themselves into the transaction, posing as the agent. “Be wary of any communication that is exclusively email based and establish a secondary means of communication for verification purposes,” the FBI writes. Also, don’t always assume a website that uses the padlock security icon—containing “https” in the URL—is safe. Scammers are increasingly using the icon on their sites, so it is not a foolproof indicator.
Set a code phrase with main contacts. Victims have reported also receiving phone calls from scammers requesting personal information for verification purposes. To verify the person is correct, encourage clients to establish code phrases that could be used to verify two legitimate parties, such as client to real estate agent or financial institution to client.
Act quickly if you think you’ve been scammed. Time is critical. Contact the financial institution first and request a recall of funds. Then, contact your local FBI office and report the fraudulent transfer. File a complaint at www.ic3.gov or bec.ic3.gov. The IC3 will assist the financial institutions and law enforcement in the recovery efforts of the funds.
Watch this video created by the National Association of Realtor’s legal team for more tips on how to avoid wire fraud in real estate transactions.