Cybercrime is an unfortunate reality these days and has become a potential threat in real estate transactions. The Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS® is alerting members and other real estate agents to a recent scheme involving the wiring of funds directly to escrow.

Potential buyers have received emails allegedly from a title company or attorney providing wire information for use by the buyer to transmit earnest money for an upcoming transaction. The messages were actually emails that were intercepted by hackers who then altered the account information in the emails so the buyer’s funds were instead sent to the hacker’s own account. The emails appear genuine and contain the title company’s email information and/or logo, etc. When the buyer transferred their funds pursuant to the altered instructions, their money was stolen.

It is apparent in this type of scam that the hackers monitored the email traffic of either the title company or the customer and were aware of the timing of upcoming transactions. While in the reported instances a customer was induced to misdirect their own funds, an altered email could conceivably be used to cause misdirection of funds by any party in the transaction, including the title company themselves.

Although wiring funds directly to escrow is still viewed by the real estate industry as a better practice than having real estate agents physically transporting buyers’ deposit checks, the danger of hackers who are able to monitor Internet traffic and intercept emails from escrow officers to buyers and alter the wiring instructions to misdirect the buyer’s funds into the hacker’s own account is grave cause for concern. In such a wire fraud scam, if buyers transferred their funds pursuant to the altered wiring instructions, their money would be stolen with little or no chance that the money would ever be returned. Conversely, if sellers are to receive their sales proceeds by wire transfer from the escrow holder to their bank, this same type of fraudulent activity could occur.

To protect your funds and to avoid identity theft, members are encouraged to take immediate steps to secure their computer systems and email accounts to safeguard against this type of scam. Buyers and sellers should confirm all email wiring instructions directly with the escrow officer by calling the escrow officer on the telephone. In that conversation the correct account number information should be repeated verbally before taking any steps to have the funds transferred.

If there is any indication that buyers, sellers or anyone else has received questionable wiring instructions, your client should promptly notify their bank; you, as their real estate agent; and the escrow holder.

Here is a partial of online sources that can provide tips to protect your systems against cybercrime:
Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov
Internet Crime Complaint Center: http://www.ic3.gov
National White Collar Crime Center: http://www.nw3c.org
On Guard Online: http://www.onguardonline.gov

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