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“I know everyone is tired of hearing about wire fraud, but it is more relevant today than ever. Criminals are getting more creative and we need to work together and continue to inform our clients of things to look out for,” said Kathy Gamch at a Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS® (SILVAR) Cupertino-Sunnyvale District tour meeting.

Gamch, who is title and escrow AVP sales at the Chicago Title Cupertino and Saratoga branches, and escrow branch managers/senior escrow officers Mary Dickerson and Hapi Yamato reminded SILVAR members that consumers continue to be duped by wire fraud. Last year, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 20,000 business email compromise complaints with adjusted losses over $1.2 billion.

According to the FBI, consumers average $8 million in losses reported each month due to wire fraud. REALTORS®, real estate brokers, closing attorneys, buyers and sellers are targets for wire fraud. Many have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because they simply relied on wire instructions they received via email.

How it works is a fraudster will hack into a participant’s email account to obtain information about upcoming real estate transactions. After monitoring the account to determine the likely timing of a closing, the fraudster will send an email to the buyer purporting to be the escrow agent or another party to the transaction. The fraudulent email will contain new wiring instructions or routing information, and will request that the buyer send funds to a fraudulent account. 

Hackers are creative and tend to add a sense of urgency to their emails, like the need for immediate action, said Dickerson. “It’s important for buyers in a transaction to pay extra close attention. If you notice inconsistencies in email addresses and domain names, or if there’s a sudden, unexpected change in the email address that you’re working with, call a trusted phone number and talk to someone who is working on your transaction – your REALTORS®, escrow officer, loan agent. Do not call phone numbers mentioned in the potentially fraudulent email.”

The escrow officials said buyers should first obtain the phone number of their REALTOR® and escrow officer as soon as an escrow is opened. Then prior to wiring, call the phone number they received and speak directly with their escrow officer to confirm wire instructions. If they receive a change in wiring instructions supposedly from their escrow officer, they should be suspicious as wiring instructions are rarely changed.

“It is all of our responsibilities to protect our clients from being victims of wire fraud,” stressed Yamato. “Over communicate to your clients about verifying in person or over the phone before wiring. One simple phone call can prevent a devastating loss!”

Here are more tips they shared for REALTORS® and their clients:

  • Educate your clients about wire fraud occurring in real estate transactions.
  • Understand the protocols of transmitting wire instructions for the title companies you work with and communicate those protocols to your clients.
  • Enable multi-factor authentication on all email accounts.
  • Use a complex password and change passwords on a regular basis. They recommend using passphrases.
  • Regularly check your email rules for any that you did not send yourself.
  • Read emails carefully and if something seems off, call the sender using a known, trusted number.

November 2019
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