Technology has made the real estate search easier than ever, but it has also made it easier for scammers posing as real estate agents to run away with your money.
The scam goes like this: you’re looking for a home or are even close to purchasing one and you receive an email from “your” real estate agent asking you to urgently wire a deposit in order to secure the property. A variation on the scam comes in the form of an email from your title company, just a few days before closing, asking you to wire money to a legitimate financial institution. In both cases, there is a scammer on the other end of the email chain.
Scammers find their targets by hacking into your actual real estate professionals’ email when they access free public Wi-Fi or mistakenly follow a link to click-bait designed to steal their passwords. Alternatively, hackers can access your email in this manner, too. Then they search the inbox for any emails related to real estate transactions and draft fake but professional-looking emails that contain wiring instructions. These emails may come from your real estate agent, title representative, or attorney. If you do end up wiring the money, you likely will not see it again.
To avoid the scam, you should speak with your real estate agent when you first establish your relationship about how and when you might be expected to transfer money. If you receive an email requesting that you wire money, call your real estate agent to verify whether he or she was the actual sender, but be sure to use the phone number you know to be accurate from your prior dealings. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), scammers often provide working phone numbers to special lines that they set up in order to reinforce the scam.
“Never trust a telephone number in an email that explains wiring instructions, because these criminals have created legitimate-looking signature blocks with their own contact information,” NAR General Counsel Katie Johnson warned in a YouTube video posted in April. “Also, never send financial information over email or to an unknown website. It is not secure.”
The Federal Trade Commission also warned that “instead of clicking a link in an email to go to an organization’s site,” you should look up the organization’s real web address and type it into your web browser manually. This will help protect your information from hackers and will reassure you that you have reached the organization’s official website.
In addition to contacting your real estate professionals prior to sending anyone any money, it is also recommended that you routinely monitor your financial accounts, credit reports, and credit scores in order to help you avoid scammers.