September is Realtor® Safety Month, which is recognized by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) as well as State and Local Associations across the country. While we focus on safety throughout the month, safety is a focus for Greater Chattanooga Realtors® all year long. As my first in a series of articles, today I’m writing about an issue that affects Realtors and consumers alike – cyber-crime.
Phishing, hacking, and wire fraud are all ways people attempt to steal from others online. As many real estate searches and transactions have moved online, the chances of being caught up in a cyber scam have become even greater.
Most people are familiar with those occasional emails from a foreign prince asking for social security or banking information, but many people don’t know that they need to watch out for more realistic scams when buying or selling their home. Cybercrimes have become increasingly sophisticated over the years and the people perpetrating them focus on situations where a lot of money is changing hands, making real estate transactions an ideal target.
NAR 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 and real estate professionals to get details about a real estate transaction. The hacker will then send an email pretending to be the buyer, seller, real estate agent or someone else involved in the closing process and say there has been a last-minute change and provide new wiring instructions for funds to be sent; the instructions send the closing funds directly into the hacker’s bank account.
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 sensitive information via email. Do not send banking information, your social security number or anything else that could be used to comprise your identity over email. If you absolutely must send personal or sensitive information via email, only use encrypted email. Many title companies and lenders offer assistance in transmission of these requests, and you should always call them directly to verify any request and ask for the encryption platform they prefer.
Do not click on unverified email. If you do not recognize the name or email address of the sender, do not open the email. Also beware of any attachments or downloadable files from unknown email addresses; they can contain viruses or provide a way for a hacker to access your computer. We recommend that if you suspect an email as being fraudulent or a request that seems out of the norm, make a call to your Realtor, title company, or lender to discuss any concerns.
Do not use unsecured Wi-Fi. It may seem harmless to check banking information using the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop 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.
I tell my clients, if you have a suspicion of fraud, or if something just feels “off,” just pick up the phone and verify the information with your Realtor or lender. And if you suspect that fraud has or is in the process of occurring, contact all parties contacted to the transaction immediately. Unfortunately, often there is nothing that can be done to retrieve money stolen in the scam, however, you should still report the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center or the Federal Trade Commission.
Educating our clients on these dangers is a top priority. Realtors do our best to make sure the public knows the prevalence of wire fraud and we advise clients to call and verify information before they wire funds. To ensure they are reaching the right person, buyers should contact their Realtor using numbers provided in advance.
For my fellow Realtors, I urge you to visit gcar.net/realtor-safety-month-2022 for 5 training classes/webinars and other tools, as well as 5 Safety Action Items for REALTORS®. These include Planning Your Safety Strategy, Tips and Best Practices, Training Videos, Personal Protection Resources, and Taking the REALTOR® Safety Pledge. These items will help Realtors keep Safety as our priority year-round. Realtors are focused on protecting our clients and ourselves. That’s Who We R®.