Don’t let web scammers ruin your home sale

In June 2017, it was widely reported that more than $1 million was stolen from a New York Supreme Court judge by internet hackers / thieves pretending to be a party in her real estate transaction.

The simple facts of the case are so startling it has alarmed Realtors and should wake up every homeowner and person with a smart phone or computer.

The entire scam was based on three simple points. 1. A real estate transaction is where the money is. Every sale unlocks many thousands of dollars in cash, new loans, payoff of old loans, fees, etc. 2. All that money must pass through one place, the escrow agent. 3. People are generally careless about their email and computer habits, and internet hackers are constantly trying to get into every computer in America. Many times, they succeed.

What happened is hackers got into one computer belonging to the buyer, seller, loan officer, escrow agent or real estate agent, involved in this transaction. They noticed emails indicating a real estate sale was in progress and money would be needed to complete a closing. The hackers then created an email that looked like it was from the escrow agent and told the judge to wire the necessary funds (in this case more than $1 million) to the escrow agent’s bank account. It all looked official except the bank routing number was to The Bank of China and was gone. This isn’t limited to just real estate transactions.

In April, a Brunswick church was defrauded of $1.75 million in funds during a massive construction project. Hackers got into church employees’ email accounts and had other employees paying construction bills direct money to a “new” account for the builder. That is being investigated by the FBI, but chances are slim that the church will ever see the money back. Weeks ago, computer displays at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport were shut down with ransom ware. This took the process of finding the correct gate or baggage carousel back to the stone age. The FBI is looking at this also.

What can you do? Start with basic internet safety. Never click on a link in an email you are not absolutely sure is secure. Those links usually are how the hackers get into your computer. If you are in a real estate transaction or just have your home up for sale, never send any information like bank account numbers, loan numbers, social security numbers and credit reports, via email to anyone. If someone requests this information, call them to verify. Get the name of the escrow agent and a contact person from your Realtor in person or by phone. Escrow agents have procedures to exchange sensitive information that do not involve email.

Realtors and escrow agents take the sale of your home very seriously; but more importantly they take the security of your transaction seriously. Before you list or sell your home, ask them about the procedures they use to keep the transaction secure. More important, make sure your computer antivirus software is up to date and you practice secure computing.

A reporter once asked John Dillinger, “Why do you rob banks?” He replied, “That is where the money is.” The bad guys know where the money is; today it is the internet and it is up to all parties in every transaction to keep it safe.

This article was provided by the Warren Area Board of Realtors.