The $100,000 question you should be asking your real estate agent

Homebuyers beware: Putting a down payment on a home could cost you your life savings.

Portland homeowner Aaron Cole was about to close in on a home purchase in Oregon when he received an email instructing him to wire the $123,000 down payment to someone he thought was the WFG National Title Insurance Company (WFG), a Portland-based national title insurance, settlement, valuation and technology services company. It turned out to be a scam — the money he wired did not go to WFG, but an unknown bank account based in Florida. He lost the money — and almost lost the home until he was hired as a spokesman by WFG to share his story with others.

‘This is like banks shipping money around in a convertible instead of an armored vehicle.’

— Al Sargent, senior director of product marketing at secure login company OneLogin

“One mistake could cost you your life savings,” said Al Sargent, senior director of product marketing at secure login company OneLogin who is familiar with the process. “And there is little-to-no recourse to be taken. Hackers are attracted to it because it’s a lot of money protected by very little security — this is like banks shipping money around in a convertible instead of an armored vehicle.”

Online criminals impersonate real estate agents online and trick buyers into sending money into offshore accounts. To pull it off, scammers hack into real estate agents’ emails and then quietly monitor communications, waiting until they are about to close on a deal. The scammer then sends buyers money wiring instructions under the identity of the agent, and routes the payment to offshore accounts. These scams continue as home builder confidence hit an 8-month high this December, and home sales were expected to see a rise in December.

“Unsecure email and mobile devices are particularly at risk, and consumers are vulnerable at emotional times with tight deadlines, such as home closings,” Bruce Phillips, head of WFG’s Information Security team said.

Real estate agents have been reporting ongoing hacks of these kinds. There are more than 80,000 real estate firms in the U.S. and 2 million real estate agents. Implementing cohesive security policies is difficult in such a fragmented real estate industry, Sargent said, making real estate scams low-hanging fruit for hackers.

The high rewards for these scams make them even more appealing. If the average home sells for $240,000, for example, a 30% down payment would be $72,000. Laws regarding liability for lost funds vary by state, but the Federal Trade Commission has been warning consumers about the issue and is working on national regulation.

Hackers are attracted to deposits for new homes. ‘This is like banks shipping money around in a convertible instead of an armored vehicle.’ — said Al Sargent, senior director of product marketing at secure login company OneLogin

The National Association of Realtors (NAR), the American trade association for the real estate industry, first warned their members of potential scams in 2015 and has continued to advise members on how to take protective measures against them since then. The problem is underscored by recent massive hacks, including the breach of more than a billion email accounts at Yahoo, putting realtors at higher risk of being hacked if their information was accessed. Wire scams have become so pervasive that many real estate professionals have begun to include warnings in their email signatures to keep consumers from falling for them.

Realtors should use two step authentication — a security measure that confirms someone’s identity with both a password and a secondary code sent by text or phone call — to secure their email accounts, said Jessica Edgerton, an associate counsel with NAR who advises real estate professionals to up their personal security and use safer email practices.

The NAR advises real estate agents to never conduct business over public Wi-Fi and be careful about what links they click on. She has also been encouraging the use of more secure technology like DocuSign and ZipLogix and other platforms for sharing and signing documents. “People are just so used to email as a form of communication and document sharing, and really it’s not an ideal or secure form,” she said.

‘People are just so used to email as a form of communication and document sharing, and really it’s not an ideal or secure form.’

— Jessica Edgerton, associate counsel with National Association of Realtors

Above all, she said, the most important component is communication — when in doubt, pick up the phone and call your real estate agent. Make sure to use the phone number on their business card as opposed to an email signature, in case the scammer has changed that as well.

As NAR and other agencies continue to spread the word about these scams, Edgerton expects their frequency will go down in the coming years. But until then, home buyers should be on the alert. “Until the technology is able to be perfected and secured, everyone needs to stay aware of the problem and educate each other,” she said. “We are dealing with international crime syndicates who are highly organized and highly professional — if we aren’t careful, they are going to keep the upper hand.”

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