Protecting Your Purchase Funds and Sale Proceeds from Wire Fraud in Real Estate Transactions
by Michael Selinfreund, Esq.
*This article is intended for educational purposes only and not as legal advice*
Recently, the number of incidents of wire theft in real estate transactions has risen dramatically. Wires of buyer’s funds to close and seller’s proceeds are being hijacked all the time.
Here’s a typical scenario. The fraudsters hack into the real estate agent’s email and monitor the agent’s emails watching pending transactions. Occasionally, they hack into the title company’s emails; however, it’s less common since it’s far easier to identify real estate agents that use public emails rather than private domain email accounts; lack sufficient firewalls; and are easier targets of malware than title companies. However, title companies also fall victim to these scams. All it takes is the fraudster posing as the real estate agent and instructing the closer to change the wiring information for the seller or the closer opening an attachment with malware.
Sometimes the fraudster steals the buyer’s funds to close by hijacking the wire intended for the title company. The fraudster sends an email to the buyer (often that appears to originate from the title company) modifying the routing and account information for the buyer’s wire to the fraudster’s account. Since the fraudster knows when the transaction is closing by monitoring the email account they hacked, they know when to send such an email. Many prefer to target the seller’s proceeds and wait until after the closing and then re-direct the seller proceeds immediately after the closing by posing as either the seller or the real estate agent for the seller.
These emails look legitimate since they either spoof the email address of the sender (looks like it came from a legitimate address) or they send the email from an account that is virtually identical to the sender’s by adding one character to the legitimate sender’s email and it goes unnoticed. That’s very easy to do when the sender uses public email accounts. That’s a common way title companies get duped. The closer receives an email from the fraudster that looks virtually identical to that of the agent, and instructs the agent to change the wiring instructions for the seller’s proceeds. Some fraudsters go as far as sending a fake email from the intended recipient’s bank acknowledging receipt of the wire and that it was being credited to the defrauded party’s account. This gives the title company and defrauded party a false sense of security, and the goal is to delay them a day or two to confirm whether the wire was properly received. This gives the fraudster additional time to withdraw the stolen funds or wire them to another account from which they’re withdrawn before the funds can be frozen where they were initially diverted.
So, if you’re the buyer, here’s how to protect yourself. One way is to fund your deal with a cashier’s check instead of a wire. If the title company has a wire only policy, tell them your concern about wire theft and offer to scan and send a copy of your cashier’s check in advance so the title company can call the issuing bank to verify its authenticity. That along with telling them you’ll close elsewhere if they will only accept a wire will likely change their position. If you cannot move the closing or choose to proceed and fund with a wire, make sure you call the title company closer at a phone number you independently verify belongs to them, and verify the wiring instructions directly with the closer. Many title commitments contain the wiring information where you send your funds necessary to close so be very wary if the closer gives you different information than what’s in the commitment. No matter what emails or correspondence you receive ever attempting to modify that wiring information, you need to absolutely presume it’s an attempt to defraud you and divert your money to a criminal. You’ll of course at a minimum want to call a phone number you procure independently (not off a potential fraudulent correspondence) and speak to the closer. I’ve never once seen the wiring instructions change in the middle of a transaction that wasn’t fraudulent so you need to be on high alert.
Protecting yourself as the seller from your proceeds wire being hijacked also requires a little diligence. You’ll want to insist that the title company signs a written document at the closing that confirms the correct wiring information for you and provides that the wiring information cannot be changed under any circumstances. Or you could choose to add a sentence that they can only be changed if the seller (you) returns to the title company; speaks directly to the closer that knows what you look like; you prove your identity again; and you sign a modified written document changing the wire destination. I’d prepare that document myself; send it in advance to the title company closer insisting that it be signed at the closing so it comes as no surprise, and if they refused to sign it, I’d go elsewhere. You have every right to make the party handling your money follow your strict instructions regarding the wiring instructions.
I also recommend notifying the title company prior to the closing that you want your wire sent immediately following the closing while you are still present, or make the title company get you a cashier’s check. Aggressive attorneys virtually 100% of the time successfully make the title company initiate the seller proceeds wire right after the closing, and the attorney waits in the lobby until a wire confirmation is received that the bank sends virtually immediately after a wire is sent. A thorough attorney verifies on the confirmation that it went to the proper account and takes a copy with them. A common issue that arises with getting a cashier’s check in lieu of a wire is that your bank may put a hold on it. If you’re turning around and purchasing another property or need immediate access to your funds for any reason, a cashier’s check might not work for you.
The sad reality is that once wires are stolen, they are rarely recovered. It’s a devastating loss to the victims, and their recourse at that point is to sue the real estate agent and/or title company for negligence. Not only is litigation extremely expensive, you are forced to incur that cost right after losing a huge amount of money. And, getting a judgment means nothing unless you can collect. The parties responsible may lack the money to pay the judgment or may file for bankruptcy protection. It’s far wiser to take appropriate precautions so you are never a victim of wire theft.