Scary telephone identity compromise story from one of our own

Standard

Our company distributes a great publication, Fraud Insights, which tells scary fraud stories every month. Lisa Tyler, National Escrow Administrator, edits this publication and does a great job keeping us informed about new scams. A Fraud Insights story in March came from one of our company employees who told her personal identity compromise story to prevent it happening to the rest of us. I’m going to translate the story to South Carolina terms and call the victim Pam Paralegal.

Pam Paralegal was working on a messy residential purchase file in her office in Charleston and was not focusing on the telephone call on her cell phone that she received purportedly from her personal bank. The caller ID was indeed Pam’s bank’s name. When Pam answered, the caller identified herself as Jill Jones and said she was with the fraud department of the bank. Ms. Jones said she was going to text a code to Pam to confirm Pam’s identity.

scammer calling

Pam received the text code and read it back to Ms. Jones.  Ms. Jones then asked if Pam had authorized a $1,000 transfer from her account that morning. Pam said that she had not made that transfer. Pam told Ms. Jones that she would log into her online account to determine whether that transfer was showing up, but Ms. Jones told Pam the bank had already shut down her ability to access her account via the Internet. Ms. Jones told Pam that she needed her to read off an additional text code to authorize the shutdown. When Pam read the second text code back, the phone line went dead.

Pam immediately started receiving emails from her real bank. The first email confirmed a change in Pam’s password. The second email confirmed Pam had authorized a $1,000 withdrawal via electronic funds transfer. Pam called her bank to report the incident and later received a call back from the real fraud department. Pam was informed that the thieves had stolen $1,000 by using her Social Security number, and that they really had shut down her account.

Pam purchased a credit monitoring service, filed a police report, and contacted all three credit bureaus to make them aware of the incident. And she is still missing $1,000.

Here are seven tips from the Better Business Bureau ® (BBB) offers to protect against telephone scams:

  1. Do not trust caller ID: Victims fall for telephone scams because they assume the number on their caller ID is the correct person. Scammers can easily spoof numbers to make it look like a certain person is calling you, when in reality they are not. Some scammers will use your own telephone number for the caller ID. Others will use your prefix with a different last four digits to make you assume you’re being contacted by a neighbor.
  2. Do not give out personal information: Any legitimate person or business who reaches out to you will already have your information on hand. If they do not, or if you receive a call out of the blue asking for personal information, just hang up.
  3. Scammers usually pose as a trusted source: Like the story from Pam who was called from someone posing as an employee in the fraud department of her bank, scammers will pose as a trusted source to attempt to obtain information from you. Hang up immediately.
  4. Do not press buttons: Many “robocallers” will prompt you to “press 9” to be taken off their call list. Pressing 9 will only do the opposite and flood your phone with even more calls. Pressing a number on the keypad alerts the scammers that they have reached an active telephone number.
  5. Beware of big name companies calling: Scammers impersonate big name companies, charities and legitimate businesses, hoping that you will be more inclined to give personal information to them. If you receive such a call, hang up immediately, find the appropriate number and call the business to verify.
  6. Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry: To cut down on the amount of calls you receive, you can register your phone number for free through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Do Not Call Registry. This registry prohibits calls, informational calls, telephone survey calls and calls from companies you have recently done business with.
  7. Do not answer: If you receive a call from a number you don’t recognize, let it go to voicemail. Any legitimate person or business will leave a message. If a scammer decides to leave voicemail, you will have time to think about what is being asked by them, instead of being pressured on the spot to give up your personal information.

That last tactic is the one used in our household and with my business cellphone. If I don’t recognize the number, I don’t answer the call. It makes more sense to return the call of a legitimate caller than to become involved with a scammer or telemarketer. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it!

Advertisements

Drafting survivorship deeds continues to be a concern

Standard

Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

This blog has addressed the issue of drafting survivorship deeds previously. This issue comes back up today because the South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section’s listserv discussed this issue, in part, last week.

The thread began with a question about whether a tenancy in common with a right of survivorship is a recognized estate in South Carolina. I believe that the concern arose from some drafting liberties taken by attorneys with these deeds. In my opinion, to create a survivorship deed in South Carolina, the drafter should follow the case or the statute exactly. And it is my opinion that if the drafter follows the case or statute exactly, then a valid survivorship estate is created, and that estate will avoid probate for the property in question at the first death.

Let’s take a look at the case and the statute.

dee house

More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! These two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states are accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership under the case. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

If anyone on the listserv has different opinions from those stated here, I would love to hear them. The real estate bar in South Carolina would love to hear them, too!

 

 

 

*366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

**Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

South Carolina Dirt Lawyers: Are you as confused by the SC Supreme Court’s most recent implied easement case as I am?

Standard

I’ve never maintained a list of the South Carolina real estate cases I find mystifying, but the most recent implied easement case, which involves a gravel driveway in Lexington County, may compel me to start.* When I say mystifying, I mean I can’t figure out why the Court came to the conclusion it did, based on what I had previously understood to be the law.

lost confused.jpg

The case is Gooldy v. The Storage Center-Platt Springs, LLC **, decided March 18.  One reason I found the case puzzling was that it failed to include the plat. When that happens, I usually attempt to draw the properties based on the language in the case, but I was unable to accomplish that in this situation. So for your edification, the main plat in question is included here.

Thanks to the efforts of my friend, Bill Booth, who sent the plat along with the chains of title and aerial views for both properties, I’ve at least figured out the facts in the case.

Here’s what happened. Congaree Associates owned 500 acres in Lexington County. In the 1980s, Congaree developed a residential subdivision of thirteen lots, called Westchester Phase I. Robert Collingwood created the plat for the subdivision. The plat was dated August of 1983 and was recorded. The northernmost lot (Lot 13) bordered the property now owned by Gooldy. This plat does not show a road crossing Lot 13. Six months later, in January of 1984, Collingwood was asked to prepare a survey for Westchester Phase II. That plat included the disputed road as “50’ Road”. The plat was conditionally approved, but the developer abandoned the subdivision. We don’t know the date of this abandonment.

In December of 1985, Collingwood prepared the Loflin plat, linked above. Note the “50’ Road” bordering the 0.68 tract. In September of 1986, Congaree conveyed the 0.68 tract to Loflin by a deed that incorporated this plat but made no mention of the road. The 0.68 acre tract was conveyed four times during the next sixteen years, and each deed incorporated the Loflin plat. The final conveyance was to Gooldy in January of 2002. Gooldy used the road for access for himself and the customers of his chiropractic business. In 2007, Congaree conveyed a 7.5 acre tract to The Storage Center. The disputed road was included in the 7.5 acre tract. The Storage Center’s representatives informed Gooldy that he was no longer entitled to use the road. Gooldy filed suit seeking to establish an easement.

The master in equity held that the deed incorporated the plat and established a presumption of an implied easement which The Storage Center failed to rebut. The master found that because Collingwood surveyed Westchester Phase I and II, he knew Congaree intended to build a road, and armed with that knowledge, Collingwood included the road on the Loflin plat.  Huh?  What if another surveyor had been employed? Does the fact that a surveyor called it a road make it so?

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the presumption did not arise because the deed only incorporated the plat to describe the metes and bounds of the 0.68 acre tract rather than to demonstrate the intent to create an easement.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Loflin plat created the presumption of an implied easement as established by Blue Ridge Realty Co. v. Williamson*** and its progeny. In Blue Ridge, a developer subdivided its property into lots and streets and recorded the plat. The Court held that purchasers of lots with reference to the recorded plat acquired every easement, privilege and advantage shown on the plat, including the right to use all the streets, near or remote, shown by the plat by which the lots were purchased.

There is no question that the Loflin plat was in The Storage Center’s chain of title. And there is no question that the two properties share a common grantor, Congaree Associates. What is missing in my understanding of the Blue Ridge holding is a subdivision plat, by which conveyances from the common grantor to Loflin and The Storage Center were made. Here, the common grantor did record a subdivision plat before any out conveyances were made and it did not show the road. Years later, the surveyor, who happened to have knowledge of a proposed (but later abandoned subdivision), depicted a road that he knew would be used if the subdivision was created on a plat he made, not for the common grantor, but for the purchaser, Loflin.  And that plat and a deed referring to it created an implied easement.

If this case makes sense to you, please explain it to me!

Here are two off the top of my head:  Smith v. Cutler and Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc. Name your favorite!

** South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27782, March 14, 2018.

*** 247 S.C. 112, 145 S.E.2d 922 (1965).

Another settlement agent sued for failing to protect buyer in email diversion

Standard

My first blog of 2018 discussed a novel lawsuit (at least novel to me) brought in York County against a residential closing law firm. A home purchaser had lost $50,000 in closing funds that were diverted by a third-party criminal posing as the transaction’s real estate agent. Did you hear that? The real estate agent was hacked. The law firm was not hacked and was only involved in the loss because it was the settlement agent. 

The law firm’s paralegal and the purchaser had discussed the funds necessary to close by telephone, but no mention was made in that conversation of the wiring instructions. The complaint stated causes of action in negligence and legal malpractice and listed the following breaches of duty:

  • Requiring the purchaser to wire funds without counseling the purchaser about methods by which the secure delivery of wired funds could be compromised;
  • Failing to counsel the purchaser about the risks and insecurity of email communications, particularly of private, sensitive and financial closing information; and
  • Failing to be alerted by the circumstances of the purchaser’s telephone call to the firm’s paralegal.

email fish hook

American Land Title Association’s ALTA News, dated March 9, reports on a similar lawsuit filed in Wisconsin. The original news story was written by Brian Huber and reported by gmtoday on March 8. 

In the Wisconsin lawsuit, the email of the settlement agent, Merit Title, was apparently compromised. According to the complaint, a Merit Title employee used an unsecured system to email the closing statement and wiring instructions to the purchaser. The following month, the purchaser received an email purportedly from Merit Title, but with a missing “T” in the domain name (merititle instead of merittitle). The second email provided wiring instructions that were similar in format, structure and design to the ones sent by Merit, according to the complaint. The purchaser lost $82,000 in the scam.

The lawsuit claims Merit “had knowledge or should have had knowledge of a cybercriminal epidemic whereby hackers target title companies to learn about real estate transactions occurring and the hackers then send fraudulent wire instructions to the buyers prior to the closing.” Merit Title should have known of preventive steps to protect the buyers, the complaint stated.

My guess is that we are about to see numerous suits like this, seeking payment from the deepest pockets involved in real estate transactions. As I asked in the earlier blog, would the processes established by your law firm for the protection of your clients defend against this type of fraud?  If not, get busy and make changes.

ALTA has a list of resources that can be used to provide the appropriate safeguards, and your title insurance company should be able to assist you in implementing the appropriate resources in your office. Most of the protective procedures involve making sure your own systems are secure. But these lawsuits seems to indicate that consumers must also be advised of the dangers of dealing with others involved in closings who do not use secure systems. You don’t want to be left holding the bag for a comprised email system of a real estate agent!

SC Supreme Court holds email provides sufficient written notice

Standard

….for at least one purpose

This blog is about dirt, but from time to time, dirt lawyers should review the rules our brother and sister litigators follow. Why? Sometimes those rules bleed over into our world, and sometimes, unfortunately, the transactions we handle are subject to litigation. And in this “ever changing world in which we live in”*, we should pay particular attention to changing rules involving technology. This is one of those changes.

The South Carolina Supreme Court held on February 28 that an email that provides written notice of entry of an order or judgment, if sent from the court, an attorney or record, or a party, triggers the time to serve a notice of appeal under Rule 203(b)(1) of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (SCACR)*.  And the Court held that this is such a novel question of law that its holding applies only prospectively, and not to the case at hand.

Here’s the background. On December 15, 2014, the master-in-equity denied the foreclosure defendants’ petition for an order of appraisal. That same day, the master’s administrative assistant emailed a signed and stamped copy of the order and Form 4 to the bank and the defendants. Three days later, the defendants received a copy of both documents in the mail.

Believing the time to appeal began on the day they received the documents in the mail, the defendants served notice of appeal on January 15, 2015, which was thirty-one days after the email and twenty-eight days after they received the documents in the mail.

The Court of Appeals held that the email triggered the time to serve notice of appeal. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the petitioners did not dispute that the email constituted written notice of entry of the order or judgment. But they argued that the time to serve notice of an intent to appeal is only triggered when written notice is received by mail or hand delivery according to Rule 5 of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP). The Supreme Court held that the SCRCP do not apply to appellate procedure.

The Supreme Court examined Rule 203(b)(1), SCACR, which requires that a notice of appeal must be served within thirty days after receiving written notice of entry of the order or judgment and held that there is no requirement of service. All that is required, according to the Court, is that the parties receive notice. Further, there is nothing in the appellate court rules suggesting that the manner in which a party may receive notice is limited to the methods used to effectuate service.

Got it, dirt lawyers?  It’s technical, but this holding suggests that our Court is gradually accepting the technology we use every day as sufficient for notice purposes. One lesson for us is that we should be careful what we say in our emails as we handle our transactional practices! Another lesson for us is that we should all check our spam and junk email files to make sure we receive all communications that may create responsibility or liability for us.

*…with sincere apologies to Sir Paul McCartney.

**Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Fallon Properties South Carolina, LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27773, February 28, 2018.

Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages

Standard

Are they still the most logical choice for all buyers?

Is the mortgage industry due for a facelift?

facelift

I recently saw an interesting article from MReport via American Land Title’s Newsletter dated February 26, entitled, “A Mortgage Best Fit; Lenders are bypassing the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in favor of loans that are tailored to specific borrower niches”. I recommend that all dirt lawyers read this article to understand that the mortgages you may be closing in the future may not be the same as the mortgages you closed in the past. You can read the article in its entirety here.

My husband and I built a house and closed a mortgage loan in 2011, and, although we told the lender and real estate agent we intended to pay the loan off quickly, both insisted on the old-fashioned 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a twenty-percent down payment. The lender didn’t even offer alternatives. In 2011, the housing market was just returning from the financial debacle that began in 2007, so everyone was being extremely careful. (I remember being questioned about why our income tax picture had changed in the years leading up to 2011 and having to write a letter explaining that children grow up and leave home.) I’m not sure we would be approached in the same way today, based on this article.

First-time buyers often choose 30-year mortgages because no one explains other options and because it’s the product their parents understand and recommend. The traditional mortgage is generally the safest option because of its reliable, consistent monthly payment. Interest rates have been low for many years now, and this fact also supports the wide-spread use of the traditional mortgage. Why risk a variable rate when the fixed rate is low?

This article suggests, however, that millennials and other first-time buyers may now be more inclined to select shorter-term and adjustable-rate options. Someone who is just entering into the housing market may envision living in their starter home for only a few years and may prefer an adjustable rate mortgage to take advantage of the low interest rate up front. This article suggests that millennials may be saddled with student debt and may be a more transient group, so they don’t want to commit to anything that lasts thirty years. Few envision themselves working for a single company for any length of time. They believe they must change jobs to increase their incomes. This article also suggests that millennials may not be loyal to a geographic area.

In addition to variable rate mortgages, this article suggests the concept of the equity-sharing mortgage, where an investor shares in the appreciation in the home value in exchange for down payment assistance or lower payments. These new-fangled products may enable low- and moderate- income borrowers to enter the housing market.

Some lenders are recognizing that these trends mean that the entire underwriting process needs to be reexamined to accommodate the millennial market. And they also recognize that veterans may have difficulty getting the service and products they need to buy homes because VA loans are a little more expensive for lenders to close. More education for veterans and training for loan officers may be needed to accommodate the veteran population. Online and mobile-friendly mortgages are also likely to change the face of the mortgage industry in the future.

Fake news? No, a fake homeowners’ association!

Standard

The schemes fraudsters use to dupe property owners out of their hard earned money seem to get stranger and creepier! On February 8, a television station in Kansas City, Missouri, FOX4, reported on a homeowners’ association scam involving a quiet neighborhood in Northland Missouri.

The station reported that for years, people living in the Summerfield subdivision ignored the invoices that arrived in the mail demanding payment to a homeowners’ association. Summerfield has no owners’ association! “Summerfield Homeowners’ Association” has no board and provides no services, but someone in its behalf mailed invoices and later filed liens against the neighborhood homes.

One homeowner reported that when he moved into the neighborhood in late 2017, he was told that there was no owners’ association and no monthly assessments. But just before Christmas, a $445 lien was filed against his home as well as thirty other homes in the neighborhood.

The liens made reference to a telephone number for a company that manages the association, Column’s Park, LLC, but the man who answered the telephone at that number, according to the news report, was “some random guy” who said the number had belonged to him for five years and had nothing to do with Summerfield subdivision. The man purported told callers to let everyone in the subdivision know that he had not caused the problem, and that he was convinced it was a scam. He was apparently weary of fielding the telephone calls of the frustrated homeowners.

Unable to resolve the conundrum themselves, the neighbors called FOX4 Problem Solvers for help. The television station traced the liens to two individuals, one residing in a federal prison, convicted on an earlier charge of mortgage fraud. This convict apparently came up with a new idea for duping consumers out of money. The other individual said she believed the subdivision should have an owners’ association to pay for the upkeep of a neighborhood drainage basin. The connection between the two individuals was unclear.

The owners finally took action by hiring an attorney to assist them in eradicating the liens.  What a story! Hopefully, we won’t see this one in South Carolina.