Scammers are going after homebuyers’ down payments in a growing version of “email access compromise.” Tactics for the scam vary, but thieves’ aim is the same: Compromise the computer or email account of a person or business involved in real estate (buyers, sellers, agents, lawyers, title companies) to monitor upcoming transactions. That gives them an opportunity to impersonate that party and try to intercept funds.
Here’s how to avoid falling victim to this kind of scam:
1) Verify everything
When you’re buying a house, you expect to hear from your real estate agent, attorney and other parties in the transaction. So you’re naturally less suspicious of emails that appear to be from those people — which thieves take advantage of.
Don’t assume any emailed instructions or account details are legit.
Experts say don’t trust emailed closing instructions. Call a number you know to be correct to confirm. Don’t call the phone number in the email. That may redirect you to the would-be thieves.
2) Be suspicious of changes
Last-minute changes to closing procedures are a red flag — especially requests that you change the payment method or send money to a different bank or account.
Again, verify any changes by calling the other parties involved.
3) Secure your emails
Given the risk of compromise, don’t send sensitive data such as bank account details or your Social Security number over email. Use a secure file-transfer service to send documents required for that home purchase, or a secure client-access portal that the business (be it your title company, mortgage broker, etc.) has set up.
Be suspicious of communications that don’t follow whatever protocol has been set up — for example, a request that you email details that you’ve previously securely submitted via a portal.
4) Use good cybersecurity hygiene
Keep your antivirus software and operating system up to date, use unique, complex passwords and enable protections such as two-factor authentication where available. Don’t click on any suspicious links in emails, he said.
5) Pick a secure payment method
Ask about your options for paying the down payment and closing costs. You may be able to bring a paper certified check or cashier’s check to the closing or an agent’s office ahead of time, avoiding the possibility the funds end up in a fraudster’s hands
What to do if you’re victimized
If you fall prey to one of these scams, you’ll need to act immediately. The odds of recovering that stolen money aren’t in your favor.
Alert the banks
Immediately call your bank or financial institution. Alert the bank on the receiving end of the wire transfer, too. They can often work with your bank to halt the transfer or freeze the recipient’s account.
Call in law enforcement.
File a local police report detailing what happened. Call your local FBI office and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, too.