ORLANDO, Fla. – Feb. 22, 2016 – A Land O' Lakes Realtor says his client was told to wire $34,000 to a scammer who hijacked an email account. It's the latest twist in an ongoing problem that often includes Realtors' email accounts.
The scam is simple but effective. Criminals steal or guess a Realtor's, title company's or client's email password. Once scammers have the password, they can log into the account any time and monitor conversations, biding their time until a moneymaking opportunity arises. With the password in hand, they can also send emails that appear to be from the email account holder.
In the case of a real estate transaction, the scammers can monitor each step of a deal. A day or two before closing, scammers simply send an email from the Realtor or title company email account with wire transfer instructions – and a fake address where they'll be waiting to pocket the money.
According to Jose' Phillips, an EXIT Prime Realty associate in Land O' Lakes, he emailed a client a few weeks ago that he'd give them "an amount to wire within the next day or two." A few hours later, however, the buyers received another email from Phillips' email account – one he never sent – that gave instructions on wiring an amount close to $34,000."
The clients wrote back to the scammers (thinking it was Phillips) and questioned the deposit, which they thought would be closer to $80,000. The scammers wrote back, saying no, the $34,000 was correct, and it included an address for the wire transfer.
"Luckily, God was watching over them," says Phillips. "The account they tried to wire the money to was wrong, so the wire wasn't accepted. They then called the title company to ensure that the money was received and were told they didn't even have the figures for closing yet!"
Phillips found out about the scam only after the title company called him. "My clients are a retired couple and this would have probably ruined their golden years," he said. "Please let Realtors know that this scam can happen even before closing!"
To date, most scams involve Realtors who use free web-based email addresses, such as hotmail.com or gmail.com. In Phillips' case, however, the police don't think his email account was hacked – they think the client's email account was hacked.
Steps to avoid the email scam
"As a defense mechanism, Realtors should always assume that scammers are monitoring every email sent and received – and suggest that their clients do the same thing," says Margy Grant, Florida Realtors vice president and general counsel. "Most emails are still safe, of course, but if you foster a general distrust of email confidentiality, you'll think twice about using it for a transaction's most sensitive data, such as the address for a wire transfer of client funds."
Other protective steps