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6 tips for avoiding online scams amid COVID-19

Being mindful, being aware and noting odd happenings in our digital lives can help stop these fraudulent maneuvers.

Every day, as consumers and as business people, we are confronted with obvious and often not-so-obvious attempts to steal our information, our identity and our money. Scammers have been particularly busy in recent weeks as businesses and individuals shift their activities online in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

We are not powerless against these criminals. Being mindful, being aware and noting odd happenings in our digital lives can help stop these fraudulent maneuvers.

Here are six tips for staying safe.

1) Online purchases should be made with PayPal or with a credit card. The reason is that debit cards take the money immediately. If fraud is in progress, the delay of a credit card transaction affords the card holder a better opportunity to catch the fraud and get it corrected.

2) If it looks odd, it likely is. Sometimes, something doesn’t look or feel right. While many shoppers stick to large, legitimate shopping sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, shoppers also seek deals. Unfamiliar web sites or mom-and-pop sites have become adept at mimicking their supersized competitors.

See an odd “o” in Amazon that looks like a zero? Don’t buy from it. Does the eBay purchase you’re about to make have a legitimate looking url? Double check it. Make sure it’s not a fake or altered web site; pop around online and be sure the purchase comes from the authentic retailer.

3) Go slowly when responding to or clicking through eNewsletters. A sophisticated and effective way scammers can get buyers’ money is by building authentic looking eNewsletters that provide click-thrus for purchasing or for personal information confirmation. One real-life scenario involved a well-known university credit union that sends out eNewsletters regularly.

One day, the eNewsletter showed up in members’ inboxes. The eNewsletter asked the recipient to confirm their name, social security number, address and phone. When the recipient complied and clicked, “done,” all that information went to a database controlled by scammers. The bogus eNews was so well designed, it was virtually impossible to know it was fake.

4) Create new passwords and do it often. Create different passwords for different web sites and make a habit of changing them regularly. Make the passwords sophisticated. If eight or more characters are required for the password, you might consider taking the extra time to make a 16-character password that makes use of supported combinations and special characters (i.e, #,S,<, numbers and letters). There are apps that help keep passwords organized and stored. Use one.

5) Enable fraud protection. The good news is that when fraud is detected, reputable companies help make it right. The credit union fraud caused the card owner to incur over $500 in unauthorized charges. The card holder had all the money put back into her account. Enable fraud protection on all credit cards. Most banks that hold credit cards will work with the cardholder to identify the fraud and reimburse the charges. Fraud protection makes the correction easier to catch and quicker to remedy.

6) Beware of phone scams. Fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated every day in order to get you to hand over your personal information over the phone. This is true not only with voice calls, but with text messages, and smartphone apps as well. 

Generally speaking, if you get a request for personal information via your phone and you did not initiate the request, chances are the request is fraudulent. 

This is especially true for scam calls purportedly coming from the IRS. The IRS will always notify you by mail first if there are any issues. Then and only then will they communicate using other means to resolve the issue in question, and that is usually only when you initiate the communication with them in response to a letter you may have received.

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Digital Closing Resources in a Changing World

We break down a complicated process by describing the five main components of the Digital Closing Process.

Remote Online Notarization (RON) started making headlines several years ago but was slow to catch on because, frankly, it didn’t really seem necessary. Then, we could all gather in the closing office and sign with paper and pen, and the technology was new and a little scary. It was like a “big black box.” Few understood how the technology worked, and most approached RON as a convenience for the few people who perhaps couldn’t easily get to the closing office. Articles were written, webinars were presented, legislation moved forward piecemeal, but since RON was considered only a “nice to have” option, there was no widespread incentive to embrace it. It would be understood and adopted over time.

Well, “TIMES” HAVE CHANGED!

We are NOW in the midst of a national pandemic. States are issuing “shelter in place” orders; the federal government is urging people to stay at home; and we’re afraid of getting too close to one another lest we expose ourselves or someone else to the COVID-19 virus. The nation is at home and unable to conduct business as usual.

The real estate, title, and financial industries are a cornerstone of our economy. Our businesses are essential to our country’s entire system of trade, exchange, and consumption of resources. So how do we continue with our business without the need for physical contact? In states where we can, one way is to turn to RON, which enables us to conduct closings remotely. Consumers can go online and execute documents electronically while the closer and notary are located elsewhere.

Many states have recognized RON’s potential as a solution and enacted legislation. There is currently extensive, ongoing efforts to legalize RON across the nation through federal legislation. However, legalizing RON is not enough because RON requires the efforts of many stakeholders to be successful. We all have to work together and be “on the same page.” Do you know what happens before or after you do your part in the Digital Closing Process? 

Alliant National’s new Components of a Digital Closing series was created to give people a common understanding of both in-person electronic closings and remote digital closings facilitated by RON. We produced this series of handbooks to demystify the process – eliminate that “black box” – and provide readers with the “big picture” of how it all works. There are a lot of moving pieces and a lot of players who must come together (hence the “eCollaboration” component of the series) to create the infrastructure needed for the successful adoption and implementation of Digital Closings. Our series of handbooks shows how the Digital Closing Process works from beginning to end.

To break down a complicated process, we’ve described five main components of the Digital Closing Process in these series of articles as:

  • eSign = electronic signing or electronic signature
  • eNotary = electronic notary or electronic notarization
  • eRecording = electronic recording
  • eVault/eNote = electronic vault and electronic note (respectively)
  • eCollaboration = electronic collaboration

It all begins with eSign and expands from there. The advent of recognizing an electronic signature as legally enforceable led to electronic notarization – after all, an electronic notary (and the principals and witnesses) must be able to electronically sign documents. Then, that electronically executed and notarized digital deed, mortgage or deed of trust must be recorded in the public records, so electronic recording (or the acceptance of “papering out” as discussed in the article on eRecording) must be available, or all is for naught! And what about the electronic note? Well, there is a system set up to facilitate the creation, transfer and sale of eNotes through the use of an electronic vault.

Within each article, we explain what the component is or does; we discuss its history or describe its legal evolution; we provide links to other articles or resources on the subject; and we provide a technological overview.

The current health crisis presents many challenges for our industry, but it also represents a unique opportunity to implement technologies that will ultimately make the real estate transaction safer and more efficient than it has been in the past.

It is our hope that you will find Alliant National’s Components of a Digital Closing series be a comprehensive, ready reference as the industry transitions toward the digital closing environment.

View the series

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We’re tracking state DOI and LTA COVID-19 updates

Quickly find information for the areas where you operate using Alliant National’s helpful table of state websites.

State land title associations and departments of insurance are disseminating information, updates and guidance amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Alliant National has built a helpful table of state websites so you can quickly find information for the areas where you operate.

Access the table here.

For instance, the Florida Land Title Association’s new COVID-19 page includes a wide range of information including links to U.S. Small Business Administration disaster assistance resources, tips for safe closings, a list of basic state requirements for becoming a Florida remote online notary (RON) and a sample list of RON platforms.

State associations and departments of insurance are adding new information pages all the time, so feel free to bookmark our list and check back for updates.  More information is available on Alliant National’s COVID-19 page.

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Creative Home Showings & Other COVID-19 Re-engineering

Video solutions throughout the buying process may become the new normal.

With every industry finding itself in triage mode amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult finding ways to keep our collective heads above water. Though the home buying process typically starts online for most consumers, real estate is still one of the most hands-on, face-to-face markets out there. While it has been reclassified as essential, agents still have a responsibility to themselves and our clients to remove as many touches as possible as we collectively navigate the crisis.

This has resulted in agents across the country getting creative in the way they show homes. Small steps like ensuring all interior doors are open and scheduling time slots for viewings rather than allowing for an open house can help mitigate potential exposure in a big way.

It’s also important to remember that while this pandemic isn’t forever, the way it shapes our industry might be.  Sara Walsh, an agent from Ohio, suspects that things like FaceTime tours and other video solutions throughout the buying process may become the new normal for clients who either can’t or don’t wish to come to live viewings.

You can check out Alliant National’s COVID-19 Resource Page for more information on how you can keep your closings safe and your business moving forward during these tumultuous times.

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Is your local recording office open?: COVID-19

Download the latest status Recording Jurisdiction Operating Status Report anytime.

Is your local recording office open? To protect the health of their employees, many governmental recording offices have decided to reduce staff, reduce hours or temporarily close their doors due to risks associated with the COVID-19 virus.

ALTA is tracking the operating status of recording jurisdictions around the country based on reports from ALTA members, colleagues and State/Regional Land Title Associations.

You can download the latest status Recording Jurisdiction Operating Status Report anytime.

If you have updates to the information you find, please contact ALTA by emailing details to countystatus@alta.org. ALTA is currently collecting the following information:

  • Operating Status (Open, Closed, Partially Open)
  • Posted Reopening Date (if available)
  • Search Status (Online, Walk-Ins, Unavailable)
  • Title Plant Data Available (Yes/No)
  • Recording Status (eRecording – All or Limited, Walk-Ins, Drop-Offs, Mail, Unavailable)
  • County Plan (Staffing, reopening plan, how the backlog/queue of recordings will be processed)
  • State/Local Website URL for more information

More information:

ALTA’s COVID-19 resource page Alliant National’s COVID-19 resource page

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