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.
Surprised we don’t see more of these – and wouldn’t you disappear after stealing $5 million?
LOS ANGELES – A Southern California brother-and-sister team were arrested today on federal charges alleging they orchestrated a $6 million real estate fraud scam in which they listed homes without the owners’ consent and collected money from multiple would-be buyers for each of the not-for-sale homes.
Adolfo Schoneke, 43, of Torrance, and his sister, Bianca Gonzalez, a.k.a. Blanca Schoneke, 38, of Walnut, each pleaded not guilty this afternoon to nine charges contained in an indictment unsealed after their arrests. The indictment charges Schoneke and Gonzalez with one count of conspiracy, seven counts of wire fraud, and one count of aggravated identity theft.
According to the indictment, Schoneke and Gonzalez, with the help of co-conspirators, operated real estate and escrow companies based in Cerritos, La Palma and Long Beach under a variety of names, including MCR and West Coast. The indictment alleges Schoneke and Gonzalez found properties that they would list for sale – even though many, in fact, were not for sale, and they did not have authority to list them for sale – and they then marketed the properties as short sales providing opportunities for purchases at below-market prices.
Using other people’s broker’s licenses, Schoneke and Gonzalez allegedly listed the properties on real estate websites such as the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). In some cases, the indictment alleges, the homes were marketed through open houses that co-conspirators were able to host after tricking homeowners into allowing their homes to be used.
As part of the alleged scheme, the co-conspirators accepted multiple offers for each of the not-for-sale properties, hiding this fact from the victims and instead leading each of the victims to believe that his or her offer was the only one accepted. The co-conspirators allegedly were able to string along the victims – sometimes for years – by telling them closings were being delayed because lenders needed to approve the purported short sales.
The indictment also alleges that Schoneke and Gonzalez directed office workers to open bank accounts in the office workers’ names. Those accounts were used to receive down payments on the homes and other payments from victims who were convinced to transfer the full “purchase price” to these bank accounts after receiving forged short sale approval letters. Schoneke and Gonzalez also allegedly directed the office workers to withdraw large amounts of cash from these accounts and give it to them – a procedure that allowed Schoneke and Gonzalez to take possession of the fraud proceeds while hiding their involvement in the scheme.
Investigators estimate that several hundred victims collectively lost more than $6 million during the scheme.
Let’s go around the horn with the automated valuation models.
Zillow says that their zestimate is within 1.9% of being right on price with the on-market homes, which sounds really good until you realize what that means.
Their zestimates of the OFF-MARKET homes are way off – especially in this market:
Once we listed for $1,599,000, they kept their zestimate at the $1,336,035, but after we received six offers that were all over list price and accepted one at $1,770,000 – and raised the price accordingly – then Zillow bumped their zestimate by $352,658:
You sure you want to sell your house to them for the off-market zestimate?
Redfin said they didn’t have enough information to generate a value when they saw my initial $1,599,000, but then they came around once the list price was raised to $1,770,000:
The other automated valuation models aren’t any better, but at least they don’t cheat:
He wants to hook you up with the top agents in your area – AND only charge you a 2% commission.
They keep the 2% circle at the bottom of the advertisement for the entire 30 seconds to engrain in your head that they have some magic network of top agents who will work for the discount rate.
Don’t believe it.
The agreement they have with agents is that you will be presented with a 2% option, which is the typical For-Sale-By-Owner plan – if you find your own buyer, then the agent will handle your paperwork for 2%. At that point, you’ll probably wonder about the more traditional plans where your listing agent handles the whole process. The next thing you know, you’ll be signing the listing agreement at 6%.
Why will these listing agents insist on the more-expensive plan?
It’s because they have to pay a finder’s fee to the advertiser.
Whenever a corporate third-party is referring you to an agent, there is a fee paid by the agent – and it’s hefty. Whether it is a TV-advertiser, an internet pitch, or relocation company provided by your employer, they all take a big cut out of your agent’s commission – usually 25% to 30%.
The great listing agents – the ones you hope will sell your house for the most money – will pass along this finder’s fee to you. It means you’ll be presented with 6% or 7% options, and/or a commission that drastically discounts the buyer-agent’s side of the commission.
The agent-referral industry relies on the bait-and-switch.
If this guy said that he had the top agents in your area that charge 6%, would he get any calls? No.
The home-selling business is known for being the Wild, Wild West.
There are a few rules and ethics filed away in a drawer somewhere but there is no enforcement unless you do something really bad, like this guy – who only lost his real estate license a couple of months AFTER he was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail.
So when the Clear Cooperation Policy went into effect in May that stipulated an agent could input a listing into the MLS as ‘Coming Soon’, as long as they didn’t show it to anyone until it was marked as an active listing, many of us scoffed.
But apparently for our local association, this is the hill to die on:
During the short-sale era, agents defrauded banks out of millions of dollars, and all the association did was to produce a video of realtors talking about how to do short sales properly.
Bidding wars are regularly abused by listing agents who tilt the table in favor of themselves or a favored realtor, and the association doesn’t offer any solutions.
And the Clear Cooperation Policy still allows off-market listings to be sold within the same brokerage – and never offered to outside agents or the public.
There are plenty of more egregious violations of the consumers faith and trust, so why is the association selecting this rule to be the one to enforce, and issue heavy fines? They are dependent upon other agents ratting out the violators, so it’s not like there will be a MLS police, but will they start enforcing any other rules – and issuing heavy fines – while they are at it? The agents who get convicted of other violations only get a letter in their file for six months.
If agents want to show their Coming Soons, they can always join the San Diego Association of Realtors instead, where the fines are limited to $500. Or if the purpose of your Coming Soon is to test the market, just enter your new listing as Active instead and answer your phone for a couple of days and you will have ample evidence of how the market feels about it.
Here’s another tepid response to an issue that bugs consumers and agents alike:
A viewer’s comment on YouTube led me to this terrific inside view of the 2008 financial crisis, and the resulting impact on the world. It rightly blames the entire fiasco on the Tan Man, who pitched his mortgages to Wall Street based on the yields generated if borrowers made their full-interest payments, when in reality, only a much smaller minimum monthly payment was all that was due.
It’s eerie to watch today as our financial markets are in question again:
I make a quick comment in at the 2:38-minute mark, standing in front of the most-expensive REO listing we received in the era – a 2,900sf house in downtown Carlsbad that sold for $603,000 in December, 2009. It’s still owned by those buyers! The realtor.com estimate today is $973,900.
Barbara Corcoran said she lost nearly $400,000 after her financial team responded to an email that turned out to be a phishing scam.
“This morning I wired $388,000 into a false bank account in Asia,” Corcoran told ABC News.
Last week, the millionaire’s bookkeeper Christine received an email that appeared to be a routine message from Corcoran’s assistant Emily to approve a payment to a German company called FFH Concept. However, the email in question was never sent from Corcoran’s assistant, instead, it was sent from a con artist.
The bookkeeper at first questioned the payment and asked in her reply, “What is this? Need to know what account to pay out of.”
“Someone sends you a bill. It’s paid,” Corcoran said. “And this one instance, it was not a good strategy.”
The crook responded to the bookkeeper with a detailed explanation and as Corcoran said, $388,700.11 was then transferred.
After the fact, Corcoran’s team noticed a missing “O” in the “from” address
“When she showed me the emails that went back and forth with the false address, I realized immediately it’s something I would have fallen for if I had seen the emails,” Corcoran said.
The savvy “Shark Tank” star fell prey to an all too common phishing scam, which is something her fellow shark Robert Herjavec, who made his millions running a tech company, knows all too well.
“85% of all cybercrime across the world comes through email, which is what happened to Barbara,” Herjavec said. “This is very, very common. It’s been happening of businesses for two, three years now. It’s now happening to individuals.”
Herjavec said there are a couple quick best practices people can implement to ensure they don’t fall for this kind of deception.
“Always verify that the email is coming from somebody you trust. Get that person to call you,” he suggested. “Number two, check your bank statements every single day, because if you catch it within 48 hours, the bank can get it back for you.”
Unfortunately, the money in Corcoran’s case is already gone, but her team traced the original scam emails back to a Chinese IP address and her attorneys are reportedly figuring out next steps.
These are the crimes and attitude required to actually go to jail for real estate fraud:
A former Fannie Mae employee will spend more than the next six years in prison after being found guilty of accepting more than a million dollars in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for selling Fannie Mae-owned foreclosures for less than market value.
Back in January 2018, Shirene Hernandez was charged with accepting bribes for steering foreclosures to certain brokers and even allegedly buying some foreclosures herself at below market value. And nearly a year ago, Hernandez was found guilty of two wire fraud counts that involved the deprivation of honest services as a result of the scheme.
Hernandez formerly worked at Fannie Mae in California as an REO foreclosure specialist and was tasked with the sale of properties foreclosed on by Fannie Mae.
As a sales representative, a position she held from 2010 through 2015, Hernandez would assign Fannie Mae-owned properties to certain real estate brokers and approve sales of the properties based on offers the brokers submitted.
But, court documents showed that Hernandez demanded and received bribes – mostly in the form of cash – in exchange for brokers getting the listings and commissions those brokers earned on real estate sales in question.
Hernandez also approved sales of Fannie Mae REOs at discounted prices to both herself and to brokers who paid her kickbacks.
As part of the scheme, Hernandez also received bribes for approving below-market sale prices of Fannie Mae properties to the brokers, all of which were violations of Fannie Mae rules and federal law.
Hernandez also helped several family members become Fannie Mae-approved brokers, and then steered nearly $80 million in Fannie Mae listings to them, resulting in nearly $2 million in commissions in less than three years.
According to court documents, Hernandez received more than $1 million in benefits from the scheme, including cash kickbacks and equity in a Fannie Mae property she bought using said kickbacks.
And, according to court documents, Hernandez paid for that property using a duffle bag filled with $286,450 in cash, which she gave to her sister-in-law to bring to the closing.
“The crime that [Hernandez] committed was egregious,” the prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “Rather than act in the public’s best interests…she used her position to line her own pockets. [She] is unremorseful and unrepentant, and would seemingly do it all again if she could avoid being caught.”
In addition to the 76-month prison sentence, Hernandez was also ordered her to pay $982,516 in restitution to Fannie Mae.
The most susceptible to home thievery are those properties that are paid off, and all you need is a crooked notary. This was more of a vengeful act by an ex-boyfriend that could be unwound a little easier because it had a mortgage and harder to re-sell. Hat tip to SM for sending!
Rohina Husseini had no idea someone could steal a house, but the first small clue that the home she owned for nearly a decade was no longer hers was a piece of junk mail that most of us ignore.
The Springfield, Virginia, mother said she initially tossed the mortgage refinancing offers that began arriving over the summer in the trash, but one detail bugged her: The letters were addressed to another woman. Curious, Husseini said she finally opened one.
“You bought a new house, congratulations,” read the letter addressed to Masooda Persia Hashimi.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t seem right,’ ” Husseini said. “I don’t know this person at all. She never lived in my house even before [I moved in].”
In the frantic hours that followed, Husseini discovered the total stranger was now the legal owner of the brick Colonial worth about $525,000 that forms the center of her life with her husband and daughter.
The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced it has filed charges and obtained a consented-to asset freeze against San Diego-based ANI Development LLC, its principal, Gina Champion-Cain, and a relief defendant, for operating a multi-year $300 million scheme that defrauded approximately 50 retail investors.
According to the SEC’s complaint, beginning in 2012, defendants fraudulently raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors by claiming to offer investors an opportunity to make short-term, high-interest loans to parties seeking to acquire California alcohol licenses. In truth, the SEC alleges, the investment opportunity was a sham. Contrary to defendants’ representations, the SEC asserts, defendants did not use investor funds to make loans to alcohol license applicants. Instead, Cain directed significant amounts of investor funds to a relief defendant that she controlled.
“The SEC took emergency action to stop what we allege is an egregious fraud,” said Los Angeles Regional Director Michele Wein Layne. “Importantly, the agreement we reached with the defendants to freeze their assets during the litigation will give investors the best chance to maximize their recovery going forward.”
The SEC’s complaint, filed in federal district court in San Diego on August 28, 2019, charges defendants with violating the antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder, and Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. Without admitting any violations of federal law, defendants have agreed to preliminary injunctions against violations of these provisions of the federal securities laws, asset freezes, and the appointment of a receiver over ANI and the relief defendant to marshal and preserve assets. The stipulated order is subject to court approval. The complaint seeks disgorgement of allegedly ill-gotten gains and prejudgment interest, monetary penalties, and permanent injunctions.