In a November report to Congress on business email compromise (BEC) and real estate wire fraud (REWF), the FBI announced enhanced efforts to put the brakes on what has become one of the most financially damaging crimes in the United States.
According to the FBI report, BEC has been the largest dollar loss by victim crime typology reported to IC3 in the past several years, with over $2.4 billion of losses in 2021.
“For comparison, the second highest dollar loss category reported to IC3 was investment fraud, with losses of approximately $1.45 billion,” the FBI reported. “In other words, dollar losses associated with BEC were over 65% more than dollar losses associated with investment fraud.”
The FBI noted in its report that criminals have been refining their exploitation of technology, especially the internet, to carry out financial crimes, logging substantial increases in internet-enabled financial frauds such as bank account takeovers, synthetic identity related frauds, money laundering through virtual currency, and BEC.
“The FBI has pivoted its approach to address this issue through gathering intelligence, utilizing advanced investigative techniques in conjunction with traditional financial crimes investigative techniques, using proactive public and private partnerships, and education and awareness campaigns,” the agency noted in the report.
Real estate wire fraud in the crosshairs
REWF is a sub-category of BEC, in which criminal actors target individuals or companies executing large wires related to real estate transactions. As our agents are aware, the criminals pose as parties to the transaction and directly communicate with the other parties to steal funds intended to pay for the real estate.
According to IC3 complaint data, victims participating at all levels of a real estate transaction have reported such activity, including title companies, law firms, real estate agents, buyers, and sellers. The FBI has specifically focused on addressing REWF due to its prevalence in the U. S. and the effect it can have on the individual victims of the REWF schemes, who may be home buyers wiring their life savings.
These schemes and the preventative measures that title agents can take have been detailed in Alliant National’s 2022 Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering White Paper.
In its report to Congress, the FBI updated its preventative measures to include the following recommendations:
- Use secondary channels or two-factor authentication to verify requests for changes in account information.
- Ensure the URL in emails is associated with the business/individual it claims to be from.
- Be alert to hyperlinks that may contain misspellings of the actual domain name.
- Refrain from supplying login credentials or PII of any sort via email.
- Verify the email address used to send emails, especially when using a mobile or handheld device, by ensuring the sender’s address appears to match who it is coming from.
- Ensure the settings in employees’ computers are enabled to allow full email extensions to be viewed.
First published in 2017 and fully updated by Alliant National’s Compliance, Risk and Education teams, the paper provides information, tips and suggestions to help you better understand the current threat environment and create a comprehensive plan that addresses the realities we face in our industry.
Filling in the Gaps
The FBI has had considerable success in reclaiming lost funds through the IC3’s Recovery Asset Team (RAT) program, since its inception in 2018.
The RAT is designed to assist FBI field offices with the rapid recovery of funds for victims who made transfers to domestic accounts. In 2021, the RAT reported just over 1,700 incidents, with losses approaching $445 million. According to the FBI, the RAT was able to recover more than $328 million of the $445 million.
But there is more work to be done and the FBI has identified vulnerabilities which, if addressed, would bolster the ability of U.S. law enforcement to effectively address a wide range of threats, including BEC.
The first is getting access to beneficial ownership information to track funds that end up in accounts controlled by shell companies.
“The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) provides for the creation of a national, non-public database of underlying beneficial ownership information for U.S.-registered businesses that meet specific criteria,” the FBI noted. “The data collected will be made available to U.S. law enforcement, subject to certain guardrails, offering a critical resource for identifying participants in a BEC scheme.”
On Sept. 29, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued the first of three rulemakings to implement the CTA, governing who must report and what information they must report to FinCEN. The final rule will take effect on January 1, 2024.
The effectiveness of this reporting requirement is as yet unknown, and there is some concern that the CTA exempts from its reporting requirements various types of entities, including trusts, which may affect efforts to identify the beneficial owners of trusts or other entities engaged in REWF.
The FBI is also recommending that UCC 4A-207 be redrafted to require banks to properly identify the name and number of the beneficiary and to determine they are in fact the same individual or entity. Currently, a bank may simply rely on the number as the identifier, without requiring a check to see if it is actually connected to the named beneficiary.
Cyber security #1 priority in 2023
As the threat from cyber criminals continues to escalate, it is imperative that our agents review their procedures for protecting client funds.
You can begin today to assess your systems and educate your staff to make sure every possible precaution has been put into place. We hope our Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering White Paper will be helpful in this work. Alliant National is committed to updating our agents to help you understand and respond to the current threat environment. Feel free to reach out to your agency representative, or any member of the Alliant National team if you have any concerns.
Forecasters Remain Cautious Given Inflation, Interest Rate Uncertainty
The real estate market has cooled over the past quarter, as buyers face mounting economic pressure from inflation, bloated housing prices, and escalating interest rates. But the question in most forecasters’ minds is what will happen in 2023 with inflation and interest rate projections in – as yet – unknowable territory.
Although experts are all over the map when it comes to predicting interest rates – projections for 2023 are currently ranging from 5% to 9% – everyone agrees that it largely depends on the Consumer Price Index and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions that result from that data.
Economic predictions are often based on “the way it happened in the past,” but economic fundamentals are rarely exactly the same mix as in the past. Such is the case today, where economic fundamentals are largely stable and housing inventory remains tight – a promising recipe for a decent, albeit softer, purchase market in 2023.
Rodney Anderson, Executive Vice President, National Agency Manager with Alliant National, noted on a recent October Research webinar that while we are currently experiencing a slowdown in the market, it’s difficult to say what portion of that is seasonal and how much is interest rate-related.
“We’ve had a sellers’ market for a long time, and now, we are returning to equilibrium,” he said. “But if you look at the number of houses on the market, we are still in a sellers’ market, with a lot of regions experiencing only a 3-months’ supply, so there is continued support for prices to remain fairly stable.”
Although there remain a lot of unknowns, many economic forecasters retain a sense of cautious optimism based on what we do know, while lenders and real estate professionals are facing the reality of lower sales and originations in 2023.
Key Factors: CPI and FOMC
The Federal Reserve’s battle against inflation remains one of the key factors in the overall economic outlook for next year, as well as the outlook for the real estate markets, since with each incremental rise in the interest rates, a new segment of buyers will be priced out of the market.
The Federal Reserve has maintained a hard line with regard to inflation, and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell did not soften his tone during his Dec. 14 presentation following the December meeting of the FOMC, where he announced the Fed would be raising the interest rate another half percent.
“Price stability is the responsibility of the Federal Reserve and serves as the bedrock of our economy,” Powell said at the outset of his speech. “Without price stability, the economy does not work for anyone and without price stability we will not achieve a sustained period of strong labor market conditions that benefit all.”
In addition, Powell said he anticipated that “ongoing increases would be appropriate in order to attain a stance of market stability that is sufficiently restrictive to return inflation to 2% over time.”
One positive indicator in December was the Consumer Price Index, which showed inflation had slowed to 7.1%. While that stat was encouraging, Powell said it was not enough to deter further interest rate hikes.
“It will take substantially more evidence to provide confidence that inflation is on a sustained downward path,” he said.
With the target federal funds rate range now at 4.25-4.5% and Powell suggesting further hikes, it is now anticipated that the federal funds rate could rise to 5.5% in 2023, adding some further deterioration to the pool of potential buyers.
Federal Reserve reports stable economic activity
The Federal Reserve’s Nov. 30 release reported economic activity was flat or up slightly across most of the districts, a sign that the economy continues to hold its own despite the known headwinds of inflation, high interest rates and global issues.
Reports across sectors were uneven. Not surprisingly, lending, home sales, apartment leasing and construction all exhibited slowing trends while improving inventory in the auto industry has resulted in an increase in sales in some districts. In addition, spending was up in travel and tourism, and as well as in restaurants and hospitality. Manufacturing was also up slightly on average.
Employment numbers remain steady
Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 263,000 in November, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.7%, according to the Dec. 2 release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Notable job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, health care, and government. Employment declined in retail trade and in transportation and warehousing.
Consumer confidence concerns were largely allayed by record Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending. Although inflation has taken its toll on consumers, low unemployment has kept spending steady across many sectors, including mortgage and rent payments, a factor that is keeping foreclosures contained.
Employment is also a major factor in keeping foreclosures down, and while labor demand is weakening, according to the Federal Reserve, businesses are expressing a reluctance to lay off due to hiring difficulties. Most importantly, most districts reported a fairly positive outlook, pointing to stable or slowing employment growth and at least modest further wage growth moving forward.
Real estate and lending projections
While the economy overall appears to be stable, the real estate market continues to decelerate.
According to the National Association Realtors (NAR) Nov. 30 report, pending home sales slid for the fifth consecutive month in October, falling 4.6%. Three of four U.S. regions recorded month-over-month decreases, and all four regions recorded year-over-year declines in transactions.
While there are always seasonal declines in the fall, the year-over-year number was more dramatic, with pending transactions down 37%.
“October was a difficult month for home buyers as they faced 20-year-high mortgage rates,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “The West region, in particular, suffered from the combination of high interest rates and expensive home prices. Only the Midwest squeaked out a gain.”
On the upside, Yun was hopeful that the upcoming months will see buyers returning to the market if mortgage rates moderate, as they have in the past few weeks.
Taking a hard look at the numbers, Freddie Mac, in its most recent analysis, noted that home sales have fallen to a forecasted 5.4 million units at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in the third quarter of 2022 from 7 million earlier this year. The GSE forecasts that home sales activity will bottom at around 5 million units at the end of 2023.
“We expect house prices to decline modestly, but the downside risks are elevated,” Freddie Mac noted. “As the labor market cools off, housing demand will remain weak in 2023, potentially resulting in declines in prices next year. However, home price forecast uncertainty is wide due to interest rate volatility and the potential of a recession on the horizon.”
Freddie Mac predictions include:
- Overall originations are expected to hit $2.6 trillion in 2022 and slow to $1.9 trillion in 2023
- Mortgage originations will end the year at $1.9 trillion and slow to $1.6 trillion
- Refinance originations slowed to $747 billion and will deteriorate to $310 billion in 2023
The Wild Card: Consumer confidence
Data can certainly tell us a lot, but at the end of the day, consumer experience and assessments can impact the long-range reality, and consumer confidence is decreasing, according to the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index.
While not dramatic, the index backtracked to 100.2 from 102.2 in October. In addition, consumers assessment of the current conditions decreased to 137.4 from 138.7 last month, and consumers’ short-term outlook declined to 75.4 from 77.9.
Consumer confidence can keep the economy and the real estate market moving forward, while hubris can take us into unsustainable territory, as we learned in 2008. A little reality check may not be a bad thing as we all continue to keep tabs on the data and plan for a softer market in 2023.
An abnormally hot real estate market fed by low interest rates and the unexpected burst of buying during the COVID-inspired escape from the city may be finally cooling down in response to rising interest rates, inflation and a skittish Wall Street.
While real estate is taking a direct hit from rising interest rates, inflation is also reducing potential homebuyers’ buying power, especially in the low to mid-range properties. But there are a few upsides that could help us weather the storm.
The team at Alliant National has compiled information on the data points that will most impact the real estate market in Q4.
Inflation and Supply Chain
Two of the biggest challenges in 2022 are likely to persist through the end of the year and into 2023, inflation and supply chain disruptions. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has resulted in Russian energy supplies being cut off to Europe and economic pressures triggering inflation, the rise in interest rates, and potential recessionary trends are creating a confluence of uncertainty.
Concerning current economic trends, the September edition of the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book, indicated that economic activity was unchanged, since their July report, with five Districts reporting slight to modest growth in activity and five others reporting slight to modest softening. However, the report also noted that the outlook for future economic growth remained generally weak, with districts noting expectations for further softening of demand over the next six to 12 months.
Market Fundamentals Remain Steady
Despite deteriorating conditions for some home buyers, steady employment numbers should keep real estate moving through the end of 2022. Although the number of buyers competing for each property has decreased in the last few months, homes are still turning over relatively quickly and, in most regions, are sold at the asking price or more.
Continued tight inventory is expected to keep most markets competitive through the final quarter.
While there is no doubt that the real estate market is likely to continue to slow, especially if the Federal Reserve follows through on yet another rate hike, economists remain watchful of other indicators that could bode well for softening the impact.
According to Fannie Mae’s most recent release, GDP is projected to grow 1.3% in the third quarter of this year, followed by 0.7% growth in the fourth quarter.
However, most economists agree that consumers have been far more unpredictable in recent years and better than predicted GDP growth in Q4 could mitigate some of the other headwinds.
Home equity, another positive indicator for the housing market, has increased dramatically over the past decade. The value of homeowner equity in the United States increased from approximately $8.77 trillion in 2010 to approximately $21.1 trillion in 2020, according to TransUnion. CoreLogic reported recently that homeowners gained another $3.6 trillion from 2021 to 2022 as home values continued to escalate, providing some solid financial strength to help homeowners weather a potential downturn.
First-Time Homebuyer Numbers Dropping
During an October Research webinar in September, Selma Hepp, Executive, Research & Insights Interim Lead of the Office of the Chief Economist for CoreLogic noted that the real estate market is experiencing its biggest hit from first-time homebuyers, who are increasingly squeezed out of the market by the trifecta of higher prices, higher interest rates and inflation that is pricing them out of the market.
In spite of that reality, first-time homebuyers, though making up a smaller percentage of homebuyers in recent months, did bump up their participation in August.
Part of that continued interest could be that many buyers are still finding buying more appealing than renting in markets where rents have escalated faster than monthly mortgage payments in recent years. That reality combined with increasing wages in some sectors is helping offset the trifecta.
Strong Employment Outlook Encouraging
U.S. employment numbers have remained strong through the summer, with the economy adding 293,000 jobs In June, 526,000 in July, 315,000 in August, and 263,000 in September, in spite of recession concerns that predicted otherwise. There are 2.0 job openings for every unemployed person, so the demand for labor is strong and should remain so through Q4, though job openings appeared to be on the decline in October.
In mid-September, the Q4 ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey (NYSE: MAN) indicated that the global labor market was likely to remain strong with steady hiring expected to continue through the remainder of 2022.
ManpowerGroup Chairman and CEO Jonas Prising reported the need for technology talent along with the growth of employment opportunities in finance, banking, and insurance are keeping the labor market strong, especially in the U.S. This along with the fact that the U.S. labor force participation grew to 62.4% in August bodes well for the real estate market as we finish out 2022.
While employment remains strong, the Conference Board Economic Forecast for the U.S. Economy, released on Sept. 14, forecasts 2023 GDP growth will slow to 0.3% year-over-year.
We’ve learned from the refinance boom and bust years that being a one trick pony in the title insurance profession is not the pathway to longevity. Diversifying your transactions with purchase, refinance, builder, REO and mobile home transactions is a good way to hedge your bets in the cyclical reality of the real estate market.
Commercial transactions can also be a great way to solidify your competitive position in the local market. However, many agents are a bit leery of taking the plunge due to the more complex nature of these deals.
Donna More, VP and Senior Underwriting Counsel for Alliant National Title Insurance Company, says that while she can understand an agent’s initial trepidation, there is a logical pathway for agents to move into the commercial end of the business, and Alliant National underwriting counsel can be a great resource as you are learning the ropes.
“I think an experienced underwriting attorney is key in these transactions,” More says. “We know right off the top what is going to come up. We can get the agent prepared, alert them on what they are going to need, and tell them what questions to ask – even before they get the search report – so they can avoid some surprises later on in the transaction.”
She notes that agents are hesitant to get into commercial because they don’t want to appear ignorant when questions and issues come up. But most of the tough issues will be resolved by underwriting counsel.
“We are going to be the ones who come up with methods of resolution, based on our professional experience,” she explains. “That is one of the big advantages we offer our agents. With our experience and knowledge, we are often able to predict what is going to happen, or what is going to be needed. We can already be thinking ahead to the best way to resolve potential issues.”
But let’s not put the cart before the horse.
There are some key steps you can take before venturing into commercial transactions. It’s also helpful to understand how the players’ roles are different and explore some of the elements that are unique to commercial transactions.
Learning about commercial transactions
The best way to learn the nuances of commercial deals, according to More, is first, to take on small deals in order to learn by doing; second, to work closely with underwriting counsel to get questions answered; and finally, to seek out educational opportunities.
“I recommend that agents who want to get into commercial and want to feel competent and prepared should take classes,” she advises. “There are always good takeaways from the commercial real estate seminars. Also, ask local attorneys what they recommend would be helpful to gain a higher degree of sophistication in commercial real estate.”
More says it shouldn’t be too hard to find educational opportunities, since bar associations and land title associations offer commercial real estate classes. Even if the class is geared towards lawyers, it can still give an agent insight into commercial deals, affording them a greater level of comfort, she adds.
Alliant National agents can check out a free webinar, Commercial Closings? No Problem! at alliantnationalacademy.com.
Securing commercial transaction title orders
More acknowledges that the most complicated commercial transactions are usually handled by attorney title agents but notes that there are plenty of non-attorney title agents who have been successful at developing a clientele with their existing real estate agent and broker customers who handle both residential and commercial transactions.
She also advises mining existing customer relationships for potential opportunities.
“Someone who bought a $3 million home and closed with you is probably a fairly successful businessperson and may be involved in buying and selling commercial properties,” she says. “Nurture those relationships.”
She also suggests getting immersed in the local business community and commercial industry organizations, especially the real estate associations like Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) or NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association (fka the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks).
“Being involved in the local commercial industry organizations is a very good source of knowledge and business,” More says. “Go to the local meetings and take advantage of the educational opportunities to build your confidence.”
How commercial title work differs from residential
Commercial transactions can be complicated, with more lawyers involved and often more parties to the transaction. In addition, the principals are often not individuals, but legal entities.
“The title agent needs to be very familiar with the types of legal entities in their state and what the requirements are for proof of good standing and proof of authority,” More explains.
She says an agent is also more likely to have to deal with ancillary issues, such as easements for access. Generally speaking, in a residential sale, the home is on a platted lot and there are no issues with access. But with commercial property, it could involve a landlocked parcel and you have to be concerned about access or the adequacy of access.
“The other important difference is how you deal with the lenders,” she says. “The lenders are going to expect more. In the more sophisticated transactions, there are going to be more requirements and different documentation needed. Even though you as the title agent would not be preparing the documents, you will have to familiarize yourself with all the documents in the transaction as well as get them signed as part of the package and recorded.”
More notes that construction loans are also more complicated for commercial properties and lenders will have a lot more requirements. The agent could also run into construction lien issues.
“Florida has a construction lien law that is very detailed and very complicated. That’s another reason why it’s so important to go to your underwriting attorney to get the guidance you need,” she advises.
Same basics, different pacing
The basics of the title and closing work in a commercial transaction is not very different from residential transaction.
“The agent needs to go through the commitment, see what the requirements are, and get familiar with the exceptions,” she explains. “It is especially important for a title agent to be able to distinguish what the parties are responsible for vs. what they are responsible for. And of course, they should come to underwriting as soon as they see something that makes them say, ‘I don’t know what this is.’”
However, More clarifies, the title agent must account for everything even if it is the sellers’ or buyers’ responsibility to actually perform the task or provide the documentation.
Sometimes commercial deals can be turned around quickly, but usually they take longer because the inspections and due diligence are more complicated, often involving permitting, approvals, DOT issues and access.
“In my seminars for Florida agents, I have always suggested checklists for any transaction, but it is most imperative in commercial deals,” More says. “Go through the contract. Check the timelines. Also, as the title agent, you need to share your title work with all parties – seller, buyer and lender. Sellers and their lawyers will have a much bigger role in a commercial transaction. The seller will have to come up with all kinds of documentation. On the buyer side, the lender will need to see the organization of the entity and will want to look at their books and balance sheets.”
And of course, the title agent will be involved in the curative work, even if it is only to give the seller guidance as to what will be required.
“In addition to keeping up with the timing, probably the most crucial part of what they do is keeping track of what needs to be fixed and how it needs to be fixed,” More notes. “That’s where we come in. They need underwriting to determine how to cure a problem or explore the alternatives available to fix an issue. We rate those alternatives – this is the best course of action or this is the option we don’t want to do.”
Commercial real estate transactions do require some expertise, but it is knowledge that can be acquired over time through educational opportunities and on-the-job experience with smaller transactions. But the most important resource you have at your disposal will always be the experienced and knowledgeable underwriting attorneys at Alliant National. We are always here to help you learn how to navigate this fascinating and challenging aspect of the title insurance business in order to take your agency to the next level.
The cost of fraud to title and settlement services companies far exceeds the actual face value of a fraud incident, according to the 2022 LexisNexis True Cost of Fraud Study released recently.
The 57-page report provides information on current fraud trends in the mortgage, title and settlement industries and details some of struggles companies face in addressing fraud detection, prevention and customer experience.
In terms of the cost of fraud, research indicates that for every $1 lost in an actual fraud incident, the cost to a title company is $4.19 or four times that of the face amount of the loss. The number rises to $5.34 for originators.
According to the research, the additional cost is related to the labor required for fraud detection, plus the expense of investigation, reporting and recovery following an incident.
For title companies, the biggest cost is labor, with the actual breakout of related costs as follows:
- 35% attributed to labor costs
- 21% for detection, investigation and recovery
- 18% related to fines and legal fees
- 13% covering fees during application and processing
- 13% accounting for the face amount of the actual fraud
The actual cost is extraordinary, given that title companies reported a staggering 77% increase in fraud over the past three years. The growth in fraud is attributed in part to COVID, as a substantial portion of both mortgage and settlement services transactions moved to online and mobile-only transactions.
According to the LexisNexis report, although fraud originates largely in online and mobile-only transactions, it often the moves to the call center or phone-based point of interaction, which further adds to the risk, with the growth of remote workers handling these transactions.
For title companies working in the online and mobile transaction world, identity verification is the number one challenge.
“The challenge involves assessing digital identity attributes such as email and phone number,” the report states. “That is contributing to challenges with identifying malicious bots and the ability to determine the source of the transaction. Synthetic identities are a key driver of identity verification challenges, particularly among organizations that do not use fraud solutions that assess digital identities and behaviors.”
LexisNexis noted that the mobile channel especially is contributing to the high volumes in recent years.
“This channel brings device-related risks that are unique from online browser transactions (SIM card swapping, malware, SMS phishing). This allows fraudsters to gain entry through anonymous remote transactions at the very start of the mortgage process.”
Title companies walk a bit of a tightrope, determined to invest in strong fraud prevention, while striving to create a positive customer experience. Customers reportedly get frustrated with the passwords, qualifying questions and multiple identifiers it takes to get through the transaction and have been known to give up and drop out of online and mobile device-related processes out of frustration.
Balancing these two necessities of doing business has been challenging, but title companies that put forth the effort can dramatically reduce their exposure to fraud.
To help our agents assess their efforts, Alliant National released a white paper this year, titled Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips. The white paper provides agents with useful information, risk factors to consider, and practical action steps that will help you partner with consumers, real estate agents and lenders to defend against the fraudsters.
In addition, the LexisNexis report identifies four recommendations agents should consider, including remaining vigilant to increased fraud, increasing the use of technology, creating multi-layered solutions, and integrating cybersecurity and digital customer experience with your fraud processes.
Here are a few highlights from their list of recommendations:
- Accelerated movement to online/mobile transactions will continue to grow; therefore, title/settlement companies should continue to buildout and enhance the digital customer experience while protecting against fraud.
- Best practice fraud detection and prevention includes a multi-layered solutions approach, and the integration of fraud prevention with cybersecurity operations and the digital customer experience.
- Layering in supportive capabilities such as Social Media intelligence and AI/ML further strengthens fraud prevention.
While fraud prevention in the current environment is challenging, the report concludes that “firms which use a multi-layered solutions approach that is integrated with cybersecurity and digital customer experience operations can lower their cost and volume of successful fraud while improving identity verification and fraud detection effectiveness.”
We encourage agents to continue to explore and implement best practices as we all work together to combat fraud. Download our white paper – Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips – today to begin your own internal assessment.
To view the full LexisNexis study, click here.