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

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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!

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Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages

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Are they still the most logical choice for all buyers?

Is the mortgage industry due for a facelift?

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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.

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!

CFPB Announces TRID Clarity in the Works

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Cordray signals notice of new rule expected late July

cfpb-logoIn an April 28 letter addressed to several industry trade groups and their members, Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said his agency has begun drafting a notice intended to provide “greater certainty and clarity” in the Know Before you Owe Rule.

The letter stated the CFPB is working hard to understand industry concerns and recognized there are places in the regulation text and commentary where adjustments would be useful.

In a press release, also dated April 28, American Land Title Association said its primary goal for the proposed adjustments is to insure consumers receive clear information about their title insurance costs on the Closing Disclosure. As we have all experienced, TRID requires a very odd negative number as the cost for owner’s title insurance in most situations. ALTA has been arguing against this strange result for many months.

The Director’s letter stated that the Bureau has begun drafting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that should be available for comments in late July. It also suggested that one or two meetings will be arranged with industry participants before the NPRM is issued. In the meantime, the letter encouraged continued feedback.

The text of the letter can be accessed here.

Good News From ALTA

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CFPB said lenders can’t “unilaterally” shift TRID liability

lane shiftIn news that will be well received by South Carolina residential closing attorneys, ALTA reported on April 8 that CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated that lenders may not unilaterally shift liability for errors on TRID mortgage disclosures to third parties.

The report indicates that U.S. Senator Robert Corker of Tennessee had written a letter to Director Cordray asking whether creditors, acting alone, may shift liability to settlement agents for Closing Disclosure errors. Director Cordray responded in writing, “While creditors may enter into indemnification agreements and other risk-sharing arrangements with third parties, creditors cannot unilaterally shift their liability to third parties and, under the Truth in Lending Act, alone remain liable for errors on the Know Before You Owe mortgage disclosures.”

ALTA’s report further states that Director Cordray wrote that lenders and settlement agents are free to decide how to divide the responsibility and risk when implementing the new requirements through contracts.

stay tunedWe have heard from closing attorneys across South Carolina that lenders are taking varying approaches in their attempts to shift or share TRID liability with closing attorneys. We caution closing attorneys to read letters and closing instructions carefully and to negotiate or strike objectionable provisions. Pay particular attention to provisions that would violate attorney ethical obligations. Don’t agree, for example, that client confidences will be revealed to creditors.

Who You Gonna Call?

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Even five months into TRID implementation, there is still confusion about
who is allowed to receive the CD and Closing Statement

paperwork confusionWe’re all crystal clear that the borrower must be provided with the new CFPB compliant Closing Disclosure. We’re clear that there are very specific rules about when that document must be delivered to facilitate the scheduled closing. We know that most of the large national lenders are preparing and delivering the Closing Disclosure themselves while many of the local and regional lenders are still relying on closing attorneys to prepare and deliver this document.

What remains uncertain in some areas is how to deliver the necessary closing numbers to real estate agents, sellers and, when it comes to seller numbers, to lenders.

Real Estate Agents: There is no doubt that real estate agents need the numbers. They typically provide valuable guidance to their buyer clients on the accuracy of the numbers in advance of and during closings. They are also required to retain copies of closing statements in their files. But the Closing Disclosure now contains much more information than the HUD-1 Settlement Statement, and it is a common belief that delivery by a lender or closing agent to a real estate agent violates the buyer’s right to protection of personal information.

What is the solution?  There are two lines of thought. Some believe the buyer should sign a waiver allowing the lender and settlement agent to provide the Closing Disclosure to the buyer’s real estate agent. Several lenders, however, have stated that they will not act on waivers of this type.

The other line of thought is that the real estate agents (both the buyer’s agent and the seller’s agent) can be provided with a closing statement without violating anyone’s privacy. All of the closing software programs have closing statements available for this purpose. American Land Title Association has created forms for this reason, and most lawyers also have versions they have previously used for commercial and residential cash transactions.

Real estate lawyers in South Carolina need to prepare separate closing statements regardless of this dilemma. Our Supreme Court has made it clear that all the numbers in a closing must be properly disclosed to the parties. It took many of us months to wrap our brains around the fact that a Closing Disclosure does not contain all the numbers. It is not a closing statement and it is not a replacement for the HUD-1. It is also not a document from which we can disburse. We need a settlement statement that balances to a disbursement analysis to assure that our numbers are correct.

Sellers: The seller should be provided with the seller’s Closing Disclosure, which is prepared by the settlement agent and not the lender. But, again, this document does not reveal all of the numbers relevant to the closing, so the seller should also be provided with a settlement statement.

Lenders (as to Seller’s numbers): We have heard that lenders are having difficulty obtaining seller information from closing attorneys, but under TRID, settlement agents are obligated to provide the seller’s information to the lender. Lenders need this information to test the accuracy of the buyer’s information, for audit purposes and to be able to provide proper information to investors.hang in there

Five months out, we are all still working our way through TRID, and we will continue to work our way through the various issues as they arise. South Carolina lawyers can rely on friendly real estate lawyers on the Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section ListServ, which can be found here. And title insurance companies continue to obtain and disseminate information as issues arise. We’ll get through it!

E-mail Hacking Scams Hitting Buyers in SC

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Please get the word out to your clients!

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As closing attorneys, title insurance agents and business men and women, we receive daily warnings about a myriad of e-mail hacking scams. Many of these schemes involve wiring instructions and attempts to divert escrow funds to remote accounts. Piecing together the two words “wiring” and “instructions” in the subject line of an e-mail seems to entice the worst kinds of fraudsters.

Our own office was hit a year or so ago. We were escrowing funds for an agent’s large commercial transaction, and the agent received a bogus e-mail purportedly but not actually from us telling him to send the money in a different direction. Thankfully, our very astute agent had attended sufficient seminars and read enough fraud alerts to take the simple step of calling us.  Fraud averted!

American Land Title Association and others have written that fraudsters are now attacking buyers, not just businesses who hold escrow funds. And it is happening here!

Within the last few weeks we have heard of three email securityattempts of this nature in Charleston, at least one of which was successful. A buyer wired $150,000 to the wrong account on a Friday afternoon based on a bogus e-mail, spoofed to appear as if it came from the closing attorney. The e-mail said the firm was busy, and advised the recipient not to call but to respond by e-mail if there were questions. That should have been the first clue. The buyer and the banker both said they thought the e-mail and wiring instructions looked funny. But they sent the money out anyway.

Buyers have not attended the seminars nor read the fraud bulletins that have inundated all of us in the last few years. Closing attorneys and real estate agents may be the best line of defense in this situation.

Please communicate with your clients and let them know that a simple telephone call can prevent the diversion of their savings to criminals!