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Scammers trick people out of enormous payments as they're about to close on a house
03-09-2018, 07:17 PM.
Post: #1
Scammers trick people out of enormous payments as they're about to close on a house
Scammers are tricking people out of enormous payments as they're about to close on a house

Kate Fazzini
September 3, 2018

It's a nightmare scenario for any homebuyer: the day before closing, a scammer manages to trick you into wiring your down payment to an offshore account. You lose your hard-earned money and you lose the house, and there's no way you can get either one back.

That's how some criminals have adapted the common "business email compromise" scam – so-named because it used to almost exclusively target businesses – to focus on individuals, especially people who are involved in a pending real estate transaction.

CNBC spoke with two victims of this type of crime who wished to remain anonymous. They were devastated to lose six-figure sums, their dream homes and in one case, the bulk of the individual's life savings.

And it's a crime that is growing, according to Ryan Kalember, senior vice president of cybersecurity strategy for email security company Proofpoint, which tracks cybercrimes perpetrated over email. Kalember has observed attempts at this type of crime have risen to a level 14 times higher than last year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also warned several times this year that email compromise schemes are spiking, which includes this type of real estate fraud.

How criminals fool homebuyers

Here's how it often works: a person involved in a real estate transaction, such as a real estate attorney or realtor, has his or her email account compromised by malicious software, known as malware, sent by a criminal over email. Unbeknownst to the professional, the fraudster can now monitor the realtor's emails to look for upcoming transactions.

Next, just as a closing date is coming near, the fraudster uses the compromised email account to send a legitimate-looking message to the buyer – which, coming directly from the realtor or attorney's account, appears real. The note tells the buyer that there's been a change of plans, and he or she needs to wire the down payment just before the closing date, supposedly to a bank account belonging to the seller.

But the account actually belongs to the criminal, and is typically overseas, out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement, Kalember said.

In some cases, Kalember said, criminals even follow up with phone calls to the victim buyers, purporting to be from a representative for the title company or seller's law office, and reassuring them the wire transfer request is real.

"The technical skill level is near zero for this crime, but the operational sophistication is very high," Kalember said. "That means that the phishing kits and other technical tools are freely available on the internet, but they are investing more time and effort into taking steps to trick the consumer."

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