Imagine you’re a homebuyer who has just wired tens of thousands of dollars for the down payment on a home. You think everything is OK until the title company tells you they never received your money and you discover the wiring instructions you received were fraudulent. You’ve likely sent your down payment directly to a cybercriminal.

Unfortunately, this is a situation more and more buyers find themselves in as hackers and scammers — often from outside the U.S. — attempt to steal money changing hands in a real estate sale.

Here’s how it works.

A scammer will hack into the email address of someone associated with the real estate transaction, e.g., the real estate agent or title representative. The scammer will watch the account, often for weeks, reading all the details about the transaction and getting to know the buyer through email exchanges.

Right before the transaction closes, the scammer will send the buyer an email pretending to be the real estate/title agent and sends the buyer wiring instructions. Sometimes the scammer will also tell the buyer not to contact the agent, saying he or she will be unavailable. The scammer also deletes the message so the owner of the account doesn’t know the fraudulent information was sent.

Should the buyer send the money as directed, the funds go straight into the scammer’s account, where they are often lost forever.

These scams are increasing at an alarming frequency. Last year, a Denver couple lost about $275,000 to a scammer who sent fraudulent wiring instructions. Fraudsters also stole nearly $100,000 from a Utah couple in a similar scheme.

And these are just the stories of people who have come forward. Many others have also lost money. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that so far this year Utah businesses have lost more than $20 million in email fraud schemes.

Realtors are working to educate buyers and sellers about these risks. In fact, the Utah Association of Realtors has developed a wire fraud alert that all Realtors can review with their clients at the beginning of a transaction. This informs buyers that they need to exercise extreme caution when wiring funds in real estate transactions.

The Utah Division of Real Estate is also creating a public service announcement to alert consumers to these risks.

Here are some of the ways you can protect yourself:

Always independently confirm wiring instructions in person or via telephone call to a trusted and verified phone number. Never wire money without double-checking with the intended recipient of the wire to confirm the wiring instructions are correct.

When verifying wiring instructions, make sure to use an independently verified phone number. Do not call the number listed on the email. Fraudsters will often change the contact information within emails to reflect their own information. It’s a good idea to get the phone number of your real estate agent and your title representative at your first meeting so you know you’re using a legitimate phone number.

Call the intended recipient of the wired funds to verify the instructions immediately prior to sending the money. Also, be wary of any emails alerting you to last-minute changes.

Be skeptical of any messages that say the real estate agent or title agent cannot be reached by phone so any follow-up must be by email.

Never send any kind of confidential information over email that’s not secure.

Change your email password regularly, and don’t use a password that you use for other sites.

If an email looks even slightly suspicious, don’t click on any links in it and don’t reply to it. This includes being on the lookout for fake emails that tell you to open attachments as part of your transaction.

These scams look real and convincing. That’s why it’s important to always make the extra effort to ensure everything is accurate prior to sending money.

For more information about learning what to expect during the real estate process and what you can do to prevent fraud, talk to a Northern Wasatch Realtor. Find one at NWAOR.com.

Brenda Nelson is president of the Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors.

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