Written by Richard Hopen from COMPASS Short Hills NJ:
When my wife and I sold our house in 2017, our $239,000 mortgage payoff was stolen.
The money was never recovered. We were victims of real estate wire fraud.
I’m not only a victim, I’m also a real estate agent and lawyer. And shame on me for not knowing about wire fraud when I sold my house. Real estate wire fraud is perpetrated by cyber criminals who exploit the trust between home buyers and sellers and their real estate agents, title companies, lawyers, and mortgage lenders. Criminals steal home deposits, down payments, and mortgage payoffs by accessing and monitoring email accounts of the parties in a transaction.
When a criminal finds an email with attached wiring instructions, they change the depository account number and email the fraudulent wiring instructions to the person who will wire the funds. If the target is duped, the money will be wired into the criminal’s account. Accessing email accounts is easy for cyber-criminals and opportunities to commit the crime are unlimited. According to a 2021 ALTA survey, 1 in 3 real estate transactions are targeted.
Real estate transactions are ripe conditions for thieves. Each transaction involves multiple parties, working under pressure to meet the closing deadline. Many of the parties share information over unsecured email accounts that can lead a savvy criminal to the wiring instructions. Home buyers and sellers are vulnerable, and real estate agents need to do much more than include wire fraud warnings on emails or have customers sign wire fraud disclosures. At a minimum, every seller and buyer should know about the risk of real estate wire fraud and how to prevent it.
Rich Hopen of COMPASS Short Hills, NJ has worked closely with ALTA to create www.stopwirefraud.org. He has sat on a wire fraud panel with a U.S. Senator; participated in a roundtable discussion with the FBI, ALTA, the Mortgage Bankers Association, American Bankers Association, and NAR; was interviewed and quoted by HousingWire and the Wall Street Journal; and has spoken to many real estate offices and organizations.
Another thought: Avoid Friday closings to help stop wire fraud.
Friday is the most highly targeted day of the week for wire fraud at real estate closings, because the next business day is on Monday, and there is only a 24 hour window to identify a fraudulent transfer and reverse it, and criminals know and exploit this weakness.
Always tell your clients to follow up with their bank in the hours after closing to be sure wire transfers were done but to also check very first thing the next morning. If the next morning is Saturday, there is no live person at the bank to follow up on the wire, and by Monday, the window to reverse it is past.