Technology has changed the way we buy and sell houses. From sites that display millions of listings to sensitive transaction documents sent through email, the internet has made buying and selling a home easier than ever. But all of that personal information floating out in cyberspace, along with the large sums of money that real estate transactions require, has caused scammers to take notice.
By now, you probably know that if a “Nigerian prince” contacts you, or you get a Facebook notice from a distant relative saying they lost their wallet while overseas, it’s time to hit the delete button. But cybercriminals have become increasingly sophisticated over the years and have come up with new scams that have fooled even the most savvy consumer.
The National Association of REALTORS® recently warned its members and consumers about one example—a wiring scam during the closing stage of the home buying and selling process. Hackers will break into the email accounts of consumers to get basic details about a real estate transaction. Then the hackers send an email pretending to be the buyer, seller, real estate agent, title officer or someone else involved in the closing process and say there has been a last minute change. That change—new wiring instructions—sends the closing funds directly to the hacker’s bank account. And just like that, the money vanishes.
While it may seem like there are hundreds of ways for a criminal to take advantage of a consumer online, there are just as many ways consumers can protect themselves. Here are a few tips to help home buyers and sellers recognize and avoid real estate scams:
♦ Do not send your social security number—the skeleton key to your entire financial life—banking information, or anything else that could be used to comprise your identity over email or text. A REALTOR® will be sure to send all correspondence/ documents over encrypted channels.
♦ Do not click on unverified email. If you do not recognize the name or email address of the sender, do not open the email. Many scams involve “spoofing,” where a fraudulent sender pretends to be a legitimate one, including using pictures and brand marks that closely mimic legitimate sites. These can be very convincing. Look for strange subject lines (“Second Delivery Attempt” and “Urgent Action Required” are popular with hackers because they work), misspelled words, incorrect or informal grammar and requests to open or download files that you aren’t expecting.
♦ Always call the sender to verify instructions. If you do receive an email asking you to wire funds, even if it looks legitimate, it’s a good idea to call the sender just to verify. It only takes a moment and could save you thousands of dollars. Your REALTOR® can also tell you what to expect to receive and in what format.
♦ It may seem harmless to check banking information using the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop or airport, but using an open connection can leave you vulnerable to hackers and scammers. Only access sensitive information on your home computer or on a secured network.
♦ If you suspect that fraud has or is in the process of occurring, contact all parties pertinent to the transaction immediately. Once your money leaves your account, there is virtually no way to get it back.
♦ For more information on how to safely and securely buy or sell a home, visit SABOR.com and use a San Antonio area REALTOR®.