What should dirt lawyers do about the Equifax data breach?

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Protect yourself! Advise your clients!

Everyone should have heard about the Equifax data breach at this point, but have you taken any action to protect yourselves and your clients in the face of it?

Equifax has created a website that allows individuals to determine whether their information has been compromised and allows them to sign up for a free year of credit monitoring. Originally, the fine print on this site indicated taking advantage of the free-year credit monitoring service would result in a waiver of legal rights against the company, but I understand the company folded under extreme pressure and removed this language. In any event, please read the fine print since it is apparently changing as this story unfolds.

This website indicated my information had been stolen as well as my husband’s and several colleagues at work. I recommend that you check here to find out whether you need to take further action.

security unlocked data breach

What action should you take?  I am already a member of a credit monitoring service, so I did not sign up for the free year with Equifax. Regardless, I prefer to keep my legal rights intact. I may need those rights! You may decide to take advantage of the service. You may decide to bite the bullet and sign up for an independent credit monitoring service, and you may decide to remain with that service for more than a year.

What else can be done? I have read many news articles and opinion pieces on this matter and decided to have my credit reports frozen with TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.  You may want to take that action, too, so I have linked those websites for you.

Consider this. If your name, address and social security numbers were compromised, this information is not going to change and the potential financial devastation is not going to resolve itself in the span of one year. Everyone who was compromised will need to be vigilant about checking and credit card accounts indefinitely.

As a real estate lawyer, you may want to advise your clients, as a service to them, about this conundrum and the actions they may be able to take to protect themselves. You may also want to reach out to your real estate agents and lender contacts to ask them to spread the word. Assuming a leadership role in this situation will serve those who rely on you well and will set you apart as a professional who works diligently to protect those who need protection.

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Feds extend footprint of shell game again

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

shell game

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

In early 2016, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches. The current order extends through March 20, 2018.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion

Total eclipse of the heart….I mean sun

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eclipse

What an experience! Millions were expected to descend upon beautiful and “famously hot” Columbia, S.C. for the total eclipse on Monday. Hundreds of events were planned to welcome the natives as well as the visitors. I thought it was an overly-hyped occasion, but I was mistaken. The eerie darkness descending on the otherwise bright day, the sounds of evening crickets; the brightening of streetlights in mid-afternoon; it was all surreal. And watching the main event was no less than dreamlike. No horror movie ever depicted an eclipse more vividly. A few clouds passed into our vision like inky smoke as we watched the moon chase and completely capture the sun. And two minutes later, the process reversed itself. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

A few people who had to miss the eclipse were described in an August 14 HousingWire story by Ben Lane entitled “Ringleader of elaborate mortgage fraud scheme gets 10 years in prison.” Mr. Lane described the complex New Jersey mortgage fraud scheme that involved fake everything, sellers, businesses, lawyers, title agents and notaries. The co-conspirators pled guilty to money laundering in a scheme that involved using stolen identities to pilfer more than $930,000 from lenders in at least eight fraudulent loan transitions.

The criminals created all the aspects of legitimate closings by using stolen and fictitious identities to fill all the required roles. The homes were real, but the homeowners were totally unaware. Virtual offices and businesses were created by setting up dozens of phone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, websites and mail drop addresses. Several lenders were deceived by the elaborate scheme. Once the loans were disbursed to the accounts of fictitious law firms and title agents, the criminals withdrew loan proceeds by visiting ATMS and bank branches for several months until the entire amounts were withdrawn.

The HousingWire story accurately states that mortgage fraud is an expensive drain on the lending agency which ultimately raises the cost of borrowing for consumers. The astute New Jersey and federal investigators who successfully apprehended these criminals benefited us all.

As the criminals report to jail, we will return to our normal lives but will remain in awe of the powerful occurrence we witnessed yesterday.

History repeats itself

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Fraudulent mortgage satisfaction schemes are back

We have heard recently that a group is engaging in a scheme to fraudulent satisfy mortgages (or deeds of trust) in California and Florida. We all know that trends in California and Florida eventually make it to South Carolina, so I wanted to make sure South Carolina dirt lawyers are aware of this scheme. This is not a new scheme, but we thought it had died down until we got this news last month.

Here are some good rules of thumb to assist you in avoiding losses and protect clients in this area:

  • Have your title examiners provide you with copies of mortgage satisfactions and releases. Two sets of eyes reviewing the documents should help with spotting issues.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases within a year of your closings. The normal schemes involve satisfying mortgages in order to collect funds at subsequent closings.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases that are not connected with a sale or refinance. Contact the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Don’t accept a satisfaction or release directly from a seller, buyer or third party without contacting the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Many of the fraudulent documents are being executed by an unauthorized party on behalf of MERS. Compare MERS satisfactions with others you have seen in connection with your closings.
  • Check spellings and compare signatures against those of genuine instruments.
  • Be wary of hand-written documents, unorthodox documents, cross-outs, insertions and multiple fonts.

The perpetrators of this fraud are sophisticated and will change aspects of the scheme as needed, so remain vigilant and discuss any suspected fraudulent documents with your title insurance underwriter.

Despicable Acts: Absentee property owners can be targets of fraud

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Despicable acts

And real estate lawyers may be the best minions to prevent these crimes!

Imagine this scenario: Lucy Wilde’s family owns a farm in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Since the sudden death of Lucy’s husband, Felonius Gru in 2007, no one has farmed the property. The fields are sitting fallow awaiting the opening of the estate and the division of the property among and Felonius’ heirs, including Lucy. The relatives have all fled small-town living to join the Anti-Villain League, so no one is available to literally mind the farm, and no one is in a hurry to settle the estate.

Enter Balthazar Bratt, a fraudster from Miami who sees the vacant property, searches the public records and learns the property is owned by the late Felonius Gru. Bratt also learns the property is ripe for development because it is located near the prime corridor between Charleston and Columbia, and very near Interstate access.

How can Bratt take advantage of this scenario while the Anti-Villain League employed family members are not paying attention? Absentee owners of real property are often the targets of criminals who pose as true owners offering the property for sale or as collateral for a new loan. These fraudsters may sell or refinance the property and abscond with the sale proceeds or strip any equity in the property with a new loan. The true owner has no idea the property is the subject of a real estate transaction.

In our fictional account, if Bratt was able to ascertain through the public records that Felonius Gru was deceased, a good title examiner should be able to use the same sleuthing methods.  If rural Orangeburg County is not your stomping grounds, as we say in the South, you might hire a title examiner who does have experience in the locale. In small towns in South Carolina, people know each other!

Another tip to fight criminals like Bratt is to compare the mailing address provided by the seller or borrower to the tax bill. While this step may not help in an estate situation, it may very well reveal an absentee owner located in a different address than the one provided by the fraudster.  If the address is different from the address provided to you or the lender, send a letter to the address shown on the tax bill. Your letter might simply suggest that you are happy to be of service to the buyer in the transaction and that if the seller is unaware of the situation, he should have his attorney contact you. That letter should get the attention of an absentee and clueless property owner.

Another tip is to compare signatures of the seller or borrower against documents in the public records. While we are not expected to be handwriting experts, we can spot obvious forgeries. I remember a war story from long ago where one person signed in seven spots in a deed, for the five owners and the two witnesses. The alert closing attorney called an immediate halt to the potentially disastrous real estate transaction!

A well-known and well-used technique that often works is to obtain and carefully review picture identifications for everyone who signs documents in your office. Also, do not accept an assignment of proceeds. Make sure proceeds are paid to the seller or borrower of record only.

And finally, give yourself and your staff members permission to carefully and slowly consider every aspect of your closings. Staff members should be encouraged to be cautious and suspicious and to discuss their concerns with each other or with an attorney in the office.  If the closing attorney needs a sounding board, she should call her friendly title insurance company lawyer.  I can’t count the number of times someone has called me, explained a situation, and before I could even respond, said, “oh, that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

minions

Sometimes just explaining the situation out loud to another person makes the problems crystal clear!

Be careful out there!

With great power comes great responsibility

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Six sensational ways to stop cyber villains

Cybersecurity is job #1 for dirt lawyers. Even in our close-knit state, we hear of attacks every week. A lawyer’s office could easily be forced out of business by one of these evil attacks. In our office, we read everything printed on the topic, and I offer you the six best, simplest tips I’ve seen. The first five are from American Land Title Association, developed with the help of the FBI, and the sixth is from the South Carolina Bar.

  1. Call, don’t e-mail: Confirm all wiring instructions by phone before transferring funds. Use the phone number from the recipient’s website or business card.
  2. Be suspicious: It’s not common for the companies involved in real estate transactions to change wiring instructions and payment information. Use common sense, stay alert to things that don’t look or feel quite right in a transaction and use your “Spidey senses”!
  3. Confirm it all: Ask your bank to confirm not just the account number but also the name on the account before sending a wire.
  4. Verify immediately: Call the recipient to validate that the funds were received. Detecting that you sent the money to the wrong account within 24 hours gives you the best chance of recovering your money.
  5. Forward, don’t reply: When responding to an email, hit forward instead of reply, then start typing with a known email address. Criminals use email addresses that are similar to real ones. By typing email addresses you will make it easier to discover if a fraudster is after you.

Thank you, ALTA and FBI, for those great tips!

The best tip, by far, that I have seen comes from the South Carolina Bar.  This tip is not only excellent for avoiding cyber fraud, it’s a great way of avoiding mistakes of all kinds in real estate practices. Here it is:

  1. Give yourself and your staff permission to slow down! We know things are hot out there not only in terms of the weather but also in terms of the speed of closings. Many of us who weathered the financial downturn remember what it was like when things were hot in 2005 – 2007. Closing speed can be increased only so much without causing error after error. Remember illegal flips prior to the financial downturn?  How many of them could have been prevented if someone had stopped long enough to think or long enough to bounce the scenario off of a friendly title insurance company underwriter? The same is true of protecting your clients’ money. Stop and think and allow your staff members to spend the time to stop and think.

Thank you, South Carolina Bar, for this great tip.

And, finally, I strongly recommend insurance against cyber fraud. Check with your E&O carrier to see what it offers. If it does not offer insurance to protect against this danger, find a company that does!  Call your title insurance company for suggestions!

WannaCry? We don’t want you to have to!

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(Guest blog by IT Guru Cris Hudson)

A global cyberattack happened over the weekend, affecting some 100+ countries, and crippling hospital networks, large manufacturers and even some small governments.

Dubbed “WannaCry”, but technically named “WannaCrypt,” the attack preyed on vulnerabilities in machines where Windows and virus scan programs were not up to date. It delivered its payload via a typical “phishing” email, and once launched, encrypted and locked down files, demanding ransom from those institutions before the files would be released.

How does this affect you? Please be sure that you are working on a current version of Windows, and that you run a regular Windows Update. We still see the occasional office using Windows XP, which Microsoft ended support for in April 2014. Without a more current version of Windows such as Windows 7 or Windows 10, those machines are not able to download updates to guard against attacks such as these.

Also, make sure that you take a moment right now and update your virus scan software. DAT files for most major security providers have been updated to recognize this threat, but only if they’ve been updated since the attack on May 12th, 2017. And as always … backup, backup, backup! If you were to fall prey to something like this, you’ve at least got a fighting chance with a current backup of your server and files.  Without it .. you might definitely be crying.