Internet scammers target real estate transactions

In June of 2017, it was widely reported that over $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 that it has alarmed Realtors and should wake up every homeowner and person with a smartphone 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 that 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 that 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 over $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.

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 or 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 that you practice secure computing.

The bad guys know where the money is, and it is up to all parties in a real estate transaction to keep it safe.

And don’t forget, when you’re ready to buy or sell a home, contact a Realtor. If you’re in the market for a new home, or thinking about selling your current home, contact a Realtor. Their value and expertise will ensure a professional home buying / selling experience.

Cunningham is the 2020 president of the Warren Area Board of Realtors.


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