By Erin Lowry
December 18, 2017

Shannyn Allan could see the finish line in sight.

The 31-year-old first-time home buyer was closing on her new home in San Antonio, Texas, earlier this year and just needed to send in her down payment. But her title company was dragging its feet getting her the last bit of information she needed, which put her in a time crunch making it so she had less than 24 hours to close the deal.

During that stressful time, she got an email telling her she had previously been sent the wrong information and that she needed to wire her down payment to a new account. With five business hours left to get everything done, Allan attempted to reach out to her title company to confirm the changes, but no one responded, so she scurried to the bank where she wire transferred her $52,000 down payment.

Turns out, she sent her life savings to scammers.

This type of real estate phishing scam — commonly known as a mortgage closing scam — has exploded in the last few years. According to the Chicago Tribune, the FBI has tracked nearly $1 billion in funds that were either diverted or attempted to be diverted from real estate purchase transactions in 2017 alone.

Here’s how to spot it — and what you can do to protect yourself.

How It Works

Like with many phishing scams, it all begins with email.

Criminals will target and hack into a realtor’s email account, title company or lender’s email system and lurk on chains for weeks waiting for the right moment to pounce. When the situation presents itself, often when there’s a short deadline to finish a housing close, the hacker will send an email mimicking the exact format of your realtor, lender or title company.

The hackers will copy the same name and email address so closely that you don’t notice a difference, especially if you’re viewing email on your phone. For example, you might get an email that says it’s from your realtor Jan Davis, but the company name after the “@” sign is one letter off, making it ever-so-slightly different.

Wire Transfers Targeted

Part of the reason it’s easy for hackers to bait-and-switch you is that you’ve already agreed that the transfer of money will be through a wire service. They know this, because they’ve seen this in the email exchanges. (If a cashier’s check had been the agreed-upon payment and suddenly you get wire transfer details, then you might see it as more of a red flag.)

The hackers switch the details of where to wire your money during a time-sensitive and already overwhelming process, which is why it’s easy for even the most diligent of people to become victims.

Recouping Lost Funds

Allan realized she’d been the victim of fraud within two hours of sending the wire transfer and immediately called her bank, Chase, to report the situation. She reached out to her title agent after still feeling unsettled by the last minute change and was informed the title company had been hacked (and shockingly, not the first time).

A report was filed with the FBI and the title company also helped to track down the stolen funds. In order to get her bank’s attention quickly, she wrote them on social media, in addition to spending hours and hours on the phone. Ultimately, Bank of America (where the hackers had Allan send the money) froze the funds — but it took days for her to get the banks to cooperate with each other and stop quarreling over liability. She ended up getting all but $400 back.

Because wire transfers aren’t insured, the scammer was able to withdraw some funds before they were frozen. Despite the $400 loss, her story is a rare happy ending. Other victims of wire fraud with whom she’s been in contact with were not so lucky when it came to recouping their lost funds.

How to Avoid Being a Victim

You may be wondering if you can just avoid the title company altogether? Buyers are not always required to use a title company, but those who take out a loan will be required to get title insurance in connection with the transaction, explained Tom Gimer, senior counsel for Masters Title & Escrow in Washington, DC.

“Never, ever trust any instruction from the title company, your real estate agent, or anyone else involved in your transaction if the purpose of that communication is to alert you of a change in previously provided wiring or payment instructions,” said Gimer.“Title companies never change their wire instructions in the middle of a transaction.”

Mindy Jensen, licensed real estate agent and community manager for BiggerPockets.com, a popular website for real estate investors, recommends physically going into the title company office to pick up wire transfer instructions instead of trusting email.

If you’re unable to go into a physical office, then take a moment to hover your mouse over any links in the email to ensure it’s redirecting where you’re expecting, says Gimer.

Unfortunately, not all title companies will accept cashier’s checks due to a prevalence of fraud in the industry. To defend against fake checks, Gimer says companies that do accept cashier’s checks will require you to wait until it clears, like a personal check, which can take several business days.

Take the time to get in touch with your title company if the information is switched last minute. Don’t call any phone numbers offered in your most recent email, as those numbers might lead directly to the hackers.

Even if you’re in a time crunch, it’s imperative you ensure your funds are going to the right place.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also recommends having your bank help you identify any red flags by confirming the account name for where you’re wiring money does indeed match the intended beneficiary of those funds.

“I wire money frequently, and always double check with my lender and the title company before sending,” says Jensen. “Those two phone calls take a couple of minutes out of my day, but when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, those few minutes are well worth it.”

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