Fraudsters continue to seek out legitimate businesses they can use as a cover for illegal schemes that attempt to separate people from their money. One of the fraud scams that has reemerged is the check fraud scheme.
The claims team was recently notified of a scenario involving an Alliant National agent. A new purchase agreement and a sizeable earnest money deposit cashier’s check was presented to the agent. The cashier’s check was from a foreign bank and was promptly deposited by the agent into their escrow account. Shortly after depositing the check, the buyer notified the agent that the transaction was cancelled. The buyer demanded the agent promptly return the funds through aggressively worded emails and continuous phone calls. The agent did the right thing by not allowing the purported buyer to usurp the procedures that the agent already had in place. Ultimately, the foreign bank confirmed that the cashier’s check was fraudulent, and the purported buyer ceased any further efforts to communicate with the agent.
A few Red Flags from the transaction included:
- A foreign buyer,
- For sale by owner transaction,
- No real estate agent utilized in the transaction,
- Use of non-standard real estate purchase and sale agreement template,
- Termination of the purchase and sale agreement was quickly sent to the agent after the check was deposited, and
- An aggressive stance is taken by the buyer requesting that the funds be returned.
Appropriately, the agent did not rush the process, notified the purported foreign buyer of their check verification process, independently researched and located contact information for the foreign bank, confirmed the validity (or lack thereof) of the cashier’s check with the bank, and waited for confirmation from the bank on whether or not the funds cleared the account.
For a foreign bank’s check, it is important to remember that it may take several weeks for funds to clear an account. If you act and return funds too quickly, the buyer’s original check may be returned due to insufficient funds. If you attempt to try and recover the funds from the buyer, most likely the buyer will refuse to return the money or the buyer can no longer be located. Then, the agent is left without those funds in their escrow account, which will lead to other issues.
It is critical to stay alert and continue to recognize this and other fraud schemes before fraudsters visit your office. You can learn more about identifying and preventing fraud by downloading Alliant National’s white paper – Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips. This 23-page guide was also referenced in our recent #AllNatAdvantage post titled The #1 Tool For Recovering Diverted Funds: Your Wire Fraud Response Plan.
In addition, here are a few other resources that outline a similar check scam:
If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
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.
Whether your customer has owned property for years or just purchased property, you know these property owners are not immune from being a potential victim of real property fraud. With the use of technology and access to real property records, property owners are reporting a number of fraud cases. One type of fraud being reported involves foreign property owners. The typical target owns an unencumbered, vacant parcel of land and has an out-of-country mailing address listed in the county records. Fraudsters are most likely finding these properties by searching the county records to identify a potential victim.
Here’s one recent fraud scenario: Months after a sales transaction closed, the title company was advised by the insured of a potential fraudulent sale of a vacant parcel of land which was owned by a foreign investor. An investigation revealed that the sale of the property was fraudulent. The conveyance deed was allegedly notarized by a notary employed at the U.S. Consulate General office in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Consulate General’s office confirmed that there was no notary by that name employed at their office. The owner of the property, who resided in Columbia, confirmed that the property was not for sale.
A few Red Flags we have identified while administering these types of claims include:
- Vacant land sales;
- Vacant parcels that have been owned by the same owner for several years;
- Non-local owners;
- Low sales price; or
- Real estate agent is contacted by a buyer/seller in a rush to buy/sell the property.
Some tips to help a title company avoid this type of fraud:
- Be extremely careful with emails from out-of-country sellers rushing to close the transaction;
- If you receive a rush sale request from the purported seller or a real estate agent, DO NOT rush; rather take your time and give the file your full attention;
- Ask the real estate agent how or from whom they received the sale listing;
- Contact the prospect seller via Zoom, Skype or another video-enabled meeting platform;
- Ask the seller questions about the property such as when and how they came to acquire it, and what their plans were for the vacant parcel to see if the seller knows the property’s history;
- Request to see the identification that will be used at the closing transaction;
- Check the seller’s foreign identification. Look at the picture (sometimes you can see that a picture was placed on top of another picture), and check for inconsistencies with the font and signs of tampering. Whenever possible, compare to a standard version of the identification, whether using a guidebook, an online resource, or even Googling samples of identification for comparison;
- Check the property appraiser’s website for the current owner’s address, and consider forwarding a letter to that address;
- Check the tax collector’s website, and review the history of tax payments to see if you can determine who the payor has been, and their mailing address;
- Research the notary and contact the Embassy or Consulate to confirm the notary works there. We have learned that many of the foreign officers are aware of this type of fraud; and
- If your gut tells you something is wrong, please follow your gut. That feeling is usually right!
For our agents, remember that you can be rewarded for your efforts through Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program if you prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. Program details and the nomination form are on our website at alliantnational.com/title-claims/crime-watch-program/.
This blog contains general information only, not intended to be relied upon as, nor a substitute for, specific professional advice. We accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any purpose acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material on this blog.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) 2021 report released in March highlighted an “unprecedented increase in cyberattacks and malicious cyber activity” resulting in a dramatic escalation in financial losses.
In 2021, IC3 received 847,376 complaints from consumers and businesses – a 7% increase from 2020 – with potential losses exceeding $6.9 billion. Most significantly for the title insurance industry, business email compromise (BEC) schemes resulted in losses of nearly $2.4 billion, up 33% from 2020.
In its report, the IC3 identified Russia as a hot spot for cyberattack actors in 2021. In recent weeks, the risk of those cyberattacks has grown exponentially in retaliation for the many sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
On March 21, President Biden released a statement highlighting the imminent threat to our nation’s cybersecurity. That same day, Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger said in a press briefing, “We’ve previously warned about the potential for Russia to conduct cyberattacks against the United States, including as a response to the unprecedented economic costs that the U.S. and allies and partners imposed in response to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine. Today, we are reiterating those warnings, and we’re doing so based on evolving threat intelligence that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks on critical infrastructure in the United States.”
These imminent threats are a reminder of how important it is to take the necessary steps to protect your agency and your customers.
Alliant National has just released a white paper titled Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips to provide our agents with information, risk factors and protocols that will help you partner with consumers, real estate agents and lenders to defend against the fraudsters.
In addition, the Biden Administration released a Fact Sheet, urging companies to take immediate steps to protect their systems, including:
- Mandate the use of multi-factor authentication on your systems to make it harder for attackers to get onto your system
- Deploy modern security tools on your computers and devices to continuously look for and mitigate threats
- Check with your cybersecurity professionals to make sure that your systems are patched and protected against all known vulnerabilities
- Change passwords across your networks so that previously stolen credentials are useless to malicious actors
- Back up your data and ensure you have offline backups beyond the reach of malicious actors
- Run exercises and drill your emergency plans so that you are prepared to respond quickly to minimize the impact of any attack
- Encrypt your data so it cannot be used if it is stolen
- Educate your employees on common tactics that attackers will use over email or through websites
- Encourage employees to report if their computers or phones have shown unusual behavior, such as unusual crashes or operating very slowly
- Engage proactively with your local FBI field office or CISA Regional Office to establish relationships in advance of any cyber incidents
The Biden Administration also encourages IT and security leaders at all companies to visit the websites of CISA and the FBI to access technical information and other useful resources. These heightened threats represent a clear and present danger for all of us. We encourage all of our agents to download the Alliant National Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering today and share this information with your staff and customers.
Cyber fraud, social engineering and wire fraud attempts are on the rise again. We’re sharing in-depth information to help you protect your business.
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.
Time to assess cyberattack risk in light of Ukraine invasion
The paper’s release comes at a critical time as U.S. businesses brace for potential cyber warfare corresponding with recent violence in Europe. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a bulletin in January warning of the increased risk of cyberattacks in the U.S. as Russia was poised to invade Ukraine.
“We assess that Russia would consider initiating a cyberattack against the Homeland if it perceived a U.S. or NATO response to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine threatened its long-term national security,” the agency said in the bulletin released to law enforcement partners and obtained by The Hill.
In response, the American Land Title Association warned in a recent blog that the risk of spillover cyberattacks against non-primary targets could become much more widespread.
2022: Growth of BEC/EAC
Against this backdrop of international tension, Alliant National agents continue to report an increase in attempted wire fraud schemes. These attacks are part of a growing fraud threat targeting businesses of all sizes and the general public.
The FBI refers to this threat as Business Email Compromise/Email Account Compromise (BEC/EAC). BEC/EAC fraudsters focus on organizations that perform wire transfers, making real estate especially vulnerable.
According to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center’s (IC3) most recent report, the center received a record number of complaints from the American public in 2020: 791,790, with reported losses exceeding $4.1 billion. This represents a 69% increase in total complaints from 2019. Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes continued to be the costliest: 19,369 complaints with an adjusted loss of approximately $1.8 billion. Phishing scams were also prominent: 241,342 complaints, with adjusted losses of over $54 million.
Protect Your Agency
Given the increased incidence of BEC/EAC scams and ransomware attacks over the past several years, it is imperative that prevention be addressed at every level. State and federal entities, as well as most of the top tech companies are creating alliances and workgroups to stem the tide.
Title insurance companies and agents also have a role to play. Given the current nationwide threat, we encourage all agents and their staff to remain on high alert for attempted fraud, particularly when it comes to seller proceeds. We also urge agencies to remain vigilant regarding possible attempts to obtain consumer or employee PII.
Here are some immediate steps to consider:
- Identify the risks your agency faces and make sure your systems are protected
- Maintain strict policies and procedures for verification of wire instructions
- Educate your staff and consumers about what to do when they suspect fraud
- Establish protocols to quickly detect fraud and recover diverted funds
- Obtain appropriate insurance, including Cyber Liability coverage
Cyber Security is Mission Critical
There is nothing more important than protecting our clients’ funds and personal information. It is mission critical for a title company to make security its highest priority in 2022. 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.
In addition to the release of the White Paper, Alliant National will provide updated materials throughout the year to help agents understand and respond to the threat environment we face. Of course, we’re always ready to discuss the threats we are seeing, and steps you might consider for your business. Feel free to reach out to your agency representative, or any member of the Alliant National team.