What was once thought to be an issue for credit companies now is finding its way into the real estate market, with hackers figuring out how to steal down payments, leaving clients without a new home and often wiping out their life savings.

Kristina Soloviena, a South Florida real estate agent, was left shaking her head.

“The timing was impeccable, actually,” she told CBS Miami.

Soloveina’s Gmail account was hacked about a year ago and criminals studied exchanges between her and her clients. They then timed their strike.

“It was time to send the remainder of the down payment to close escrow,” Soloviena said.

According to the report, the hackers used Soloviena’s email account to send a message to one of her clients telling them to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to a fraudulent account.
“It’s creepy being watched and knowing they’ve been reading all of our emails,” Soloviena said.

The National Association of Realtors and the FBI have recently warnings about “sophisticated email scams targeting the real estate industry.”
Matt Fuller with the San Francisco Association of Realtors, warns that Realtors aren’t the only targets.

 

“It’s a nationwide phenomena, unfortunately,” he said. “It can be the agent’s email. It can be the title company. It can be a lender. It can be a transaction coordinator.”

The hackers set out to make it look like they are someone involved in the real estate transaction by sending emails from their account, instructing buyers to wire money. The criminals usually do it just when the buyer is expecting to make a payment.

Lucky for Soloviena’s clients, they questioned the fake email. The amount requested was off by just a bit.

While suggestions like two-factor authentication and encrypted emails may thwart potential hacks, it is refreshing that a practical, non-technical word of advice comes from, of all places, an alert put out by the California Association of Realtors’ Silicone Valley branch, which read, in part”

“Buyers and sellers should confirm all email wiring instructions directly with the escrow officer by calling the escrow officer on the telephone. In that conversation, the correct account number information should be repeated verbally before taking any steps to have the funds transferred.”

Certainly, if wiring instructions are changed via email, the buyer should confirm that by phone with the escrow officer and the buyer’s real estate agent.

The National Association of Realtors and the FBI advise anyone buying or trying to buy real estate to verify any instructions they receive in an email, and never wire money unless they’re positive the instructions came from a reliable source.