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Escrow fraud schemes tend to follow common patterns connected by email

We’ve all heard escrow fraud stories, and maybe you or someone you know has even had a wire diverted. The details can be pretty freaky.

See what you think of this one:

A young woman is selling a property and her father is the real estate agent on the deal. The father and daughter hand deliver wire instructions to the title agency. Ten minutes after they leave, the processor at the title agency receives an email that looks like it’s from the daughter. The email says “My daddy” wants to change the wire instructions so the seller proceeds will go to a different account.

The processor doesn’t want to bother the daughter and feels comfortable that the email is legit given that it mentions the woman’s father. The processor marks the changed instructions as “verified” and sends them to the wire department.

The email was fraudulent. The wire was for nearly $300,000. In this case, the title agency was able to retrieve all the money thanks to quick action and more than a little luck.

Freaky, right?

The details always get our attention, but they can also distract us and make it hard to get ours hands around the basic ways escrow fraud tends to work.

Escrow fraud schemes tend to follow common patterns. Often, fraudsters hack the email account of the real estate agent or another party and monitor the account for upcoming closings. As a closing date approaches, the fraudsters — posing as one of the parties to the transaction — interject themselves into the communications chain and seek to change wire instructions. Fraudulent communications usually come via email but also can be made via telephone or fax.

Here are seven common scams we’ve have heard about from our agents.

  • 1. THE SELLER SPOOF: A classic. Fraudsters, posing as the seller, email the settlement agent using an email address that looks like the seller’s, or even uses the seller’s actual email address. The criminals attempt to divert seller proceeds to a fraudulent account.
  • 2. THE LATE SWITCHEROO: The settlement agent receives instructions from the seller regarding where to wire the seller’s sale proceeds. Then, before the closing, the settlement agent receives a message from an email address that looks like it is from the real estate agent instructing the settlement agent to wire the sale proceeds to a different, fraudulent account.
  • 3. EARNEST MONEY HUSTLE: The settlement agent receives an email from an address that appears to be the real estate agent’s. The fraudster instructs the settlement agent to release the earnest money deposit back to the alleged client. The instructions direct funds to a fraudulent account.
  • 4. THE BUYER BEWARE: Fraudsters pose as the settlement agent or real estate agent using an email address that looks like it is from one of them and instruct the buyer to wire his or her down payment funds to a fraudulent bank account.
  • 5. THIRD-PARTY POOPER: In a transaction involving a third-party investor who is to receive seller proceeds: The fraudsters, impersonating the investor, using an email address that looks like the investor’s, provide fraudulent wire instructions to the seller. The seller conveys these instructions to the settlement agent who wires proceeds to the fraudulent account.

In addition, some frauds may not involve the buyer, seller or real estate agent. Here are some examples:

  • 6. BUSINESS EXECUTIVE SCAM: Fraudsters, posing as the CEO or CFO of a title company, email an employee whose job includes transferring funds. The email requests an urgent payment to be made outside of normal procedures, often giving a pressing reason. The account to which payment is made is fraudulent.
    7. THE VENDOR BENDER: Fraudsters, posing as a vendor of the title company, email the title company directing payment of an invoice to a fraudulent account.
  • We’ve developed an infographic outlining these 7 Deadly Scams, and we hope that by familiarizing yourself with these basic patterns, you and your team will be better positioned to sniff out escrow fraud. You may also want to discuss common scams, like the Buyer Beware and the Third-Party Pooper, with your consumers.

On that note, Alliant National recently produced a white paper on escrow fraud as part of our ongoing effort to inform agents about the threats we all face. The paper provides real-life tips and strategies for keeping consumers informed about the important role they can play in helping to keep escrow funds safe.

I’ll be back next week with a post exploring some of those strategies.

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Nate Marinchick

Nate Marinchick

Director of Research and Educational Programming, ANTIC

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