During the real estate boom years, thieves and con artists came up with ingenious ways of committing fraud. One of the more successful schemes was to use a fake cashier’s check at the closing. Buyers and sellers were usually protected, but title companies and closing agents lost a lot of money.
And here is where our tale — with a warning — begins.
Most everybody knows that you can’t take a personal check to a real estate closing and expect the closing agent to accept it. The agent needs to have good funds to distribute money to all the parties that must be paid from a real estate closing. If a check doesn’t clear, the closing agent won’t have enough funds to cover the checks.
For this reason, closing agents during the last few years have begun requiring that actual funds be received in their account before closing a transaction. Buyers and lenders have had to send funds via wire transfer. Some states have gone so far as to require this arrangement. Some states allow buyers to come to closing with a small amount in a cashier’s check, but in many instances they might expect to have to wire funds to the closing agent.
It seems, however, that thieves have become more sophisticated. Recently, closing agents have received warnings of scams relating to wire transfers and residential closings.
Some scammers have managed to gain access to buyers’ e-mail accounts or the accounts of other participants in real estate transactions. They then send fake e-mails asking buyers to wire their hard-earned dollars to an account overseas — where wired funds will disappear forever.
If you are buying now or in the future, you should protect yourself from becoming a victim of this sort of wire scam. When you get wire instructions for your closing, you should call your closing agent, real estate attorney or other party to your transaction to verify those instructions.
Even though you might receive an e-mail with that information, make sure you verify it independently. Use the phone number you’ve been using for your closing agent and ignore the information in the e-mail. That way you won’t inadvertently call the scammer and have them “confirm” the information.
While confirming the information for your closing, you should be skeptical of any instructions to send money to a financial institution out of the country or that seems to have no logical connection to the area of the country in which you are buying a home.
Most closing agents use local banks or regional banks to handle their money. It should be a red flag if you receive wire instructions for your closing in the East Coast with a bank in a far off location. If you are closing on a home in Atlanta, you’d generally see a bank in Atlanta even if it’s a local branch for a national lender.
Yes, it’s a bit more work and we’re sure you have plenty to do in the run-up to your closing. But keep that in mind that a few extra phone calls might save you quite a bit of heartache and help you avoid losing money.
You should also safeguard your bank accounts. Recently, we received a call from someone who was scammed out of more than $100,000 with a wire fraud scheme. The scammer e-mailed the individual’s accountant requesting the accountant to tell the bank to wire funds overseas. The accountant’s office complied with the e-mail’s request and had the bank wire the money. When the client checked his bank balance, he saw that his account had been depleted.
While we don’t know if the client’s or the accountant’s e-mail account was hacked, your institutions or advisers should always have at least two authentication steps before wiring money out. A simple phone call to the client to verify the request would have stopped the scam.
In short, if someone can figure out a way to hack into 78 million bank or credit card accounts, your e-mail account is not completely secure. Taking a few extra steps to protect yourself makes sense, and we believe they will soon become just more boxes to tick as you march your way to the closing.
Ilyce R. Glink ’s latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In!” Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate lawyer. If you have questions, you can call Glink’s radio show
(800-972-8255) any Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Contact Glink and Tamkin through the Web site www.thinkglink.com.