There’s a scam afoot, or, shall we say, a-wire that prospective homebuyers may want to be on the lookout for, and it happens like this: You’re nosing around the real estate market — maybe even close to buying a house or piece of property. And then you get a message from your real estate agent urging you to wire money to secure the deal.
As you might have guessed, a scammer is spoofing your real estate agent’s account and is waiting for your money.
How a Scammer Finds Their Target
Hackers snatch passwords when people log into free Wi-Fi networks or click on things like those cute-puppy emails. They search your inbox or your real estate agent’s inbox for any messages related to real estate transactions. Once they find you’re in the process of buying a home, they’ll send a fake message from your agent or attorney, title representative (or other trusted source), alerting you to new money wiring instructions to a fraudulent account. Once your money is wired, it’s likely gone for good.
“If the buyer takes the bait, their bank account could be cleared out in a matter of minutes,” the FTC wrote in a blog post in March.
How to Avoid the Scam
To stay out of trouble, buyers should talk to their real estate agents upon meeting to learn about how and when they might be expected to wire money. Before making a wire transaction, it’s a good idea to call your agent, using a telephone number you know to be accurate and have verified outside of email, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
“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 said in a warning video about the scam posted to YouTube in April. “Also, never send financial information over email or to an unknown website. It’s not secure.”
Beware of links sent by email, warns the FTC, “instead of clicking a link in an email to go to an organization’s site, look up the real URL and type in the web address yourself.” You can also report any suspicious activity to the FTC.
Because real estate agents are being hacked as well, the real estate site Realtor.org urged real estate professionals to warn people never to discuss their financial information over email, and to talk by phone if a wire transfer is actually supposed to occur. It also suggested real estate professionals hire someone to monitor office security, and to have elaborate passwords and change them often.
Doing Your Due Diligence
With so much hacker activity, it’s always best to monitor your financial accounts, credit reports and credit scores frequently and don’t take any unauthorized activity lightly. If you do fall prey to a scam, be sure to report the crime to the proper authorities. And if you think your personal information was compromised, continue to monitor your credit for signs of identity theft, like mysterious accounts or unfamiliar credit inquiries. (You can see two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com each month and request your free credit reports each year from AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure no one has snatched your information and raided your credit.)