Picture this: After weeks of getting ready, you’re about to close. Your boxes are packed and the moving trucks are on their way. And, based on instructions you received by email from your real estate agent, you’ve wired closing funds to the bank account the agent specified.
But the money you wired never arrived. It’s gone — sent to an unknown account in some foreign country. You can’t get it back. And now, there’s no way you can buy the house.
Unfortunately, versions of this nightmare have been popping up around the country, affecting hundreds of home closings and costing buyers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Though many wire fraud attempts are detected before the settlement funds are stolen, cyber-criminals can be successful, and often at huge financial costs to their victims.
Jackie Villano from Acres Land Title Agency tells me that “the people who are hacking are very good and very smart. They integrate themselves into emails and conversations and then wait to pull off their crimes.”
To commit their crimes, the hackers break into a realtor’s email account and watch for references to upcoming closings. From the email account, they can learn the identities of buyers and sellers, the names of the title, escrow and settlement companies and the timing of scheduled closings. Once inside the agent’s account, they can effectively take over the agent’s identity and provide credible wiring instructions to unsuspecting clients. Today’s hackers know the lingo and will often adopt the conversational styles of all the players involved in the transactions.
Jackie says “Verify, verify, verify. And always touch base with your attorney and realtor if you do receive wire instructions by email.”
There are ways you can protect yourself from becoming a victim to a wire transfer scam.
- Don’t use a wire transfer to pay for your down payment. Use a bank check instead.
- Don’t automatically trust the information you get in emails, even if it looks legitimate.
- Never wire funds without first calling the intended recipient to confirm the information provided.
- If you use the phone to verify the information, look up the number yourself. Don’t use the number listed on the email because that could be fake, too.
- Don’t just hit “reply” to answer an email dealing with your finances. Take time to type in the proper email address yourself.
- Sensitive financial information should never be sent over an unsecured email.
- Buyers and sellers should confirm all email wiring instructions by calling the escrow officer directly. In that conversation, the correct account number information should be repeated before taking any steps to have the funds transferred.
- If wiring instructions are changed via email, confirm the change by phone with the escrow officer and the buyer’s real estate agent.
If you’ve already become a victim of wire fraud, time is of the essence and you need to act quickly. The FBI says you need to:
- Contact your financial institution immediately upon discovering the fraudulent transfer.
- Ask your financial institution to contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent transfer was sent.
- Contact your local Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office if the wire is recent. The FBI, working with the United States Department of Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, might be able to help return or freeze the funds.
- File a complaint at www.IC3.gov.
Remember to always confirm the correct bank account information before you wire any funds.