Q: Three weeks ago we were given wire instructions by our escrow company and had no reason to believe that they were not real.
Our escrow officer was extremely busy and impossible to reach via telephone. She was always available via email and text. Unfortunately, we received instructions via email and confirmation via text, and it was encrypted with DocuSign authentication. We wired almost $500,000 and even sent confirmation to her as requested. Later that day we stopped by to drop off a document that had been notarized to her office and learned that they had not received our money. We were in a state of shock, disbelief, denial and depression; then enraged. The injury gets worse and the blows kept coming.
Next we had the process of trying to get our money back if possible. Nobody, including our bank, was willing to help. We found that nobody knew anything and nobody would tell us anything. The FBI and Secret Service were involved in our case. But due to the investigation, nobody would tell us anything.
We are extremely grateful that a kill chain was executed by the FBI, but we lost half our money and we now have to wait and see what happens. The half of our money that is ours is sitting at our bank but we have to wait 90 days to get it back. So we fell out of escrow and now can’t close on our home.
News flash to our fellow buyers: You may not know this, but you’re not protected when you wire money. Why didn’t we know this? Why does the bank get a pass? Why isn’t there a regulatory agency that can help consumers if something catastrophic like this happens? Why don’t consumers have insurance options for this type of loss? Why don’t people talk about this brave new world we live in? With all the technology in the world why can’t we stop this?
We want to get the word out. Thank for listening.
A: Thanks for sharing your story. It’s heart-wrenching to know that you’ve quite possibly lost $250,000 and it was gone in a flash.
We have written about wire fraud for some years. In the real estate industry, there are people in the financial side of the transaction who are constantly worried about wire fraud issues. In fact, Sam tells his real estate clients to beware of wire fraud and has them check and double-check the wire instructions before sending funds.
But you need to understand that most wire fraud issues are really email hacks. So let’s try to see what happened in your situation from what we know of other similar situations we’ve heard about.
The most frequent way hackers get wind that a person is about to wire a large sum of money is by hacking the closing agent’s, real estate attorney’s, settlement agent’s or real estate broker’s email accounts.
Once they hack into any of these email accounts, they monitor the emails, waiting for the right time to copy or mimic the owner of the email account to send out fraudulent wire instructions to an unsuspecting home buyer. When these hackers send you an email, they will instruct you to wire the funds to their bank account. They may even give you a phone number to call to confirm the wire, but that phone number will be a phony number to a person who is an accomplice to the fraud.
The other way this happens is that the criminals will learn about you through their prior hack and then hack into your email account and monitor the many hacked email accounts they have looking for active real estate transactions. They will then send them a fake email telling them where to wire the money. Again, the information will be fraudulent and any information on the email is there to entice you to fall into the scam.
In the first case, if the settlement agent, lender, broker or other person’s email was hacked, they may have some responsibility for the fraud, and the company or its insurance coverage may reimburse you. But if your email was hacked, you won’t be able to blame anybody else other than yourself.
Recently Sam had a person who called him with a situation similar to yours. In that instance, the home buyer’s email had been hacked. The hackers had monitored his email, knew he was buying a home, knew when to send him wire instructions and knew what to say. And, like you, he lost a considerable amount of money.
No system is completely secure. In fact, the Pentagon hosts hackathons to have talented coders and programmers search for ways criminals can break into their systems. But the entire wire system is at risk the way it is handled now, and the financial world needs to create a two-step authentication method to safeguard people and their money in these sorts of transactions.
Two-step authentication might look the way it does on your Gmail account; you can activate two-step authentication, so when you login to an account, there is a second security step to make sure that the sender and the receiver are in agreement as to what will transpire in the transaction. We’re not sure what the system would look like, but title companies, escrow companies and settlement agents should come up with a more secure way to set up the system so we safeguard these transactions in a better, smarter and hopefully hack-proof way.
In the meantime, here are a few steps to take to protect yourself:
1. Never wire funds to anybody or any institution unless you have checked the wire instructions independently with your title company, settlement or closing agent.
2. If you can’t or won’t confirm the information over the phone, most title companies, settlement companies and closing agents post their wire instructions online, so be sure you check their official websites. If they do, you can compare those instructions with the instructions you received.
3. Some agents will confirm the instructions you received over the phone if you give them the information you received. Just make sure you are talking to the right person at the right place.
The system is far from perfect now, but we tell our readers to be vigilant and when it comes to wire transfers and to verify and reverify the information from trusted sources. As you found out, if you receive an email, you need to make sure it’s from a trusted source. If you receive a text, you must make sure it’s from a trusted source. If you receive a call, you need to make sure it’s from a trusted source.
In the end, you need to have a good working relationship with your settlement agent to make sure that you know that “trusted” source. We can see the day when you go to see the closing or settlement agent in person and then go to the bank to initiate the wire transfer. That way, you have face-to-face information with your trusted source.
We’re sorry you got scammed. Believe it or not, you’re one of the lucky ones: You didn’t lose everything. We hope you get the rest back. Thank you for sharing your story.
Ilyce Glink is the creator of an 18-part webinar and e-book series called “The Intentional Investor: How to Be Wildly Successful in Real Estate” as well as the author of many books on real estate. She also hosts the “Real Estate Minute” on her YouTube channel. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them at ThinkGlink.com.