Escrow services are supposed to protect the parties involved in any transaction. Unfortunately, scam artists are creative and misuse this concept to defraud people by promising protection for their money while demanding payment via methods that cannot be traced.
Cyber criminals, hackers and other unscrupulous scammers are targeting the real estate industry with increasing effort. Real estate transactions are particularly attractive to cyber criminals due to the amount of personal information and financial details sent between the parties and the large amounts of money that can be obtained through such actions. This bevy of information can be used for a wide variety of fraudulent activity.
While technology and internet banking help to speed up the real estate process, it makes us much more vulnerable to the escrow scam artists like never before. The Internet makes it easy to create a fake company and it allows fraudulent scammers to target hundreds of thousands of escrow clients without much effort. You can avoid becoming a victim of escrow fraud if you stay in close contact with your Citrus Heritage Escrow Officer and become familiar with how we ask for information.
The team at Citrus Heritage Escrow would like to educate you on what to watch out for.
What is Real Estate Escrow Fraud?
Fraud is on the rise in today’s world and in the Escrow industry. This deception has been around in some form or another for as long as escrow companies existed. When it comes to internet escrow scams, criminals attempt to convince consumers that their money will be protected if they use a particular site. They will frequently use the names of well-known firms, including using their logos to make the communications seem legitimate.
The scam artist poses as your Escrow Company or sets up a fake escrow companies and tricks the party in a real estate transaction into sending money to a fake escrow service. The demand to send money is typically via some method that is usually difficult to trace, such as gift cards or wire transfers. Once the money is sent, the so-called Seller disappears, and the victim never receives the promised item.
How Does Escrow Fraud Happen?
Email is one of the most common methods for cyber criminals to attempt to initiate escrow fraud. Scam artists frequently use email fraud and “phishing” to defraud their victims. They send emails that seem to be from legitimate companies you already work with, like your bank, an online auction site, or even your internet service provider.
These emails often require you to verify your personal information by replying, opening an attachment, or clicking a link. The result is that a virus is downloaded that records everything you type or you are taken to a fake website that looks legitimate.
In addition to fake emails, scammers are also using fraudulent text messages (smishing), and setting up fake websites (pharming), to trick potential victims into giving up their private information or sending money to bank accounts set up by the criminal.
Through both phishing and smishing techniques, the victim will receive a message that appears to come from a trusted individual or organization. For the purposes of escrow fraud, the message may appear to come from the title company, the escrow agent or a real estate agent. The message will typically ask the victim to verify their bank account details or will ask the buyer to send money for escrow.
The cyber criminals will provide instructions to have a sum of money wired for escrow, closing costs, etc. They might even email the title company to wire money to the seller. Regardless of who the target is, once the money is wired to the fraudulent account, it is quickly withdrawn, and extremely difficult to recover when the scam is discovered.
If you receive any emails or messages that appear to be from Citrus Heritage Escrow but seem to be fraudulent, please contact our support team immediately.
Indicators of a Possible Scam
- Sloppy Content
Fraudulent websites are designed in haste so there is a high chance that certain vital information will be lacking, or fed with false information. In many cases, the con artists will imitate the websites of the legitimate escrow companies to make their scam look legitimate. This can involve copying company logos, legal disclaimers and even entire web pages. However, such copying can be rather sloppy.
- Unresponsive Customer Service
Legitimate escrow companies will have customer service workers that will be able to respond to you directly during working hours. Con artists, on the other hand, do not always have the resources to pull this off. If you call their customer service number you will wind up getting voicemail. In some cases, you may not get anything at all. Either way, this is a clear sign that you are dealing with a scam. If you are unsure, search your web browser for our company web site and phone contact directly on your own.
- Questionable Payment Methods
A legitimate escrow company will always ask you to wire money from your bank to theirs and will provide you an account number and a routing number. To be certain that an escrow company is legitimate; ask your bank to tell you where the money is headed. Whenever you are asked to pay money to an individual rather than a corporate identity, or asked to make payment using a person-to-person money transfer – consider it a fraudulent scheme.
Putting money in the bank leaves a paper trail, and many of them have criminal history that prevents them from claiming it, so they will request it be sent to some sort of trusted intermediary. Alternatively, the scam artists may ask you to send the money through Western Union or MoneyGram, hoping that you will not realize that both companies only send money from person to person. No escrow company or lender will accept Western Union or Money Grams.
- Lack of Online Presence
If you look up a name of a legitimate escrow company on any search engine you will find many results. If you look up fake companies, on the other hand, you may not get any results other than the fake website and online advertisements. Generally speaking, the fewer results the search generates, the more likely it is to be an escrow scam.
How to Protect Yourself From Escrow Fraud
- Check Email Addresses Closely
Check the sender’s email address very closely, even if it looks legitimate at first glance. The best option is to report it to Citrus Heritage Escrow and block the sender. Delete the email as soon as our support team gives you the go-ahead, as they might need it for further investigation. Make sure not to click on any links, download attachments, or reply, as you could be infecting your device with a virus.
- Be Careful with Links
Links in emails can be problematic. Ensure that the link does not go to a fake site by hovering your cursor over the link and checking the address. To be even more confident, go to the company website directly, using your browser and not clicking the link.
- Do Not Trust the Information In the Email
In the event you receive an email from your title company, particularly if it has to do with sending money somewhere, do not use the information in the email to verify the instructions. Sophisticated cyber thieves will set up phone lines where a person will answer using the name of the title company. If someone starts emailing or calling you from the title company, you should immediately cross-check their contact information with what you have already verified.
- Be Cautious with Unusual Payment Methods
If you are asked to send money using an unusual payment method, like gift cards or a wire transfer directly to an individual, you should be very suspicious. Citrus Heritage Escrow will never ask for gift cards as payment into an escrow account. We usually require payment by credit card, bank account transfer, or other legitimate electronic service, like PayPal.
If you get an email from a well-known firm asking you to make payment using an unconventional method, check their website or contact them via the information on their site to ensure the request is legitimate.
What Happens at Citrus Heritage Escrow?
Your escrow officer follows instructions on your contract, coordinates deadlines, and gathers all necessary paperwork. For example, written requests for payoff information (called “demands”) are sent to the Seller’s mortgage company and any other lien holders.
During the escrow period, the title company coordinates with Citrus Heritage Escrow and begins researching and examining all historical records pertaining to the subject property. Barring any unusual circumstances, a commitment for title insurance is issued, indicating a clear title or listing any items which must be cleared prior to closing. The commitment is sent to you for review.
When choosing an escrow company there can be many important factors to evaluate. Fees, location, staff and even recommendations from friends and colleagues are all things to consider. With Citrus Heritage Escrow by your side, you can rest assured that when you receive your settlement check, you’ve gained the maximum benefit from your home sale or purchase.
Call us today with any questions or concerns. Our professional Escrow Agents will help you through this exciting yet confusing process. (951) 335-7200