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.

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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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Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

Total eclipse of the heart….I mean sun

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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.

News from Wells Fargo

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Lender issues settlement communication on June 1

Wells Fargo continues to update its settlement agents on a quarterly basis. South Carolina closing attorneys should pay close attention to these newsletters, which may highlight changes in closing processes and documentation. You can read the latest version here.

Significantly, the latest newsletter provides the following updated information:

  • Closing Insight™ training has been completed within Wells Fargo internally, and use of this portal method for communicating about closing files will continue to expand in all geographic areas. Closing attorneys should expect to receive requests to use Closing Insight™.
  • The numbers of “findings” are being reduced by RealEC, meaning some technicalities that were previously reported as closing file irregularities will now be eliminated. This change is good news for closing agents and applies not only to Wells Fargo, but to other lenders as well. An example is that file numbers will no longer trigger a “data mismatch” for dashes (-) if the rest of the file number matches. Another example is that differences in capitalization, formatting, common abbreviations and punctuation will no longer trigger findings.
  • The Service Provider Verification of Identity (SPVI) form has been updated and will now allow all document signers to use one form. Also, the revised form no longer requires details on the method of identification, such as drivers’ license numbers of borrowers.
  • The SPVI form for FHA loans must be send to the lender prior to disbursement. For all other loans, this form may be provided to the lender with the other executed loan documents.
  • Settlement agents are not authorized to sign any documents on Wells Fargo’s behalf. Any documents requiring the lender’s signature should be sent to the loan processor or closer.
  • Wells Fargo Tax Services will no longer provide services as an affiliate. Instead, the tax services will be provided by Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. The tax service fees previously disclosed in Section B or C of the Closing Disclosure will now be disclosed in Section A.

This blog will continue to attempt to keep closing attorneys updated on lender communications as they are distributed.

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.

Two positive articles for dirt lawyers from national sources

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REALTOR®Mag is reporting that although financing remains the top roadblock to successful closings, fewer real estate agents are reporting financing as an issue today as opposed to previous months. This trend is a good one! Check out the article here.

The article indicates that, according to the REALTORS® Confidence Index, which is based on the responses from 2,500 real estate agents nationwide, the decline in complaints about financing may reflect an improvement in the economy, better credit histories from buyers and an improvement in loan evaluation processes.

But the article does report that appraisals are becoming a growing concern. Real estate agents indicated that a shortage of appraisers, valuations that are not in line with market conditions and “out-of-town” appraisers who are not familiar with local markets create the difficulties.

And for the first time in eleven years, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conforming loan limit has increased to $424,100, allowing more home buyers to avoid jumbo loans, obtain lower interest rates and deliver lower down payments. The non-conforming loan limit had previously been stuck at $417,000. Read the article from INFOGRAPHIC here.

The economic news surrounding real estate closings is generally positive nationally. And the news is good in South Carolina, too. I’ve traveled around the state a good bit since the beginning of the year, and everywhere I go, I ask lawyers about business.

Early in the year, it seemed residential practices were sluggish in some markets while commercial practices were extremely busy statewide. In the last few weeks, I’m hearing much more encouraging news about residential practices, and commercial lawyers continue to report that business is excellent.

Our office is in the middle of a seminar series we have entitled “The future’s so bright, we have to wear shades.” We’re drinking the Kool-Aid and enjoying these economic good times. Those of us who weathered 2008 – 2012 deserve it!