Beware of new deceptive strains of payroll phishing

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This blog has recommended KnowBe4 previously as an impressive source of news on cybersecurity. I have subscribed to the newsletter and receive weekly, timely and scary cybercrime updates in my inbox. I recommend to all lawyers that they spend the time and funds necessary to remain safe and vigilant in the arena of cybersecurity. Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our clients’ funds. In this case, however, it is our operating funds and our employees’ funds that are at risk. Those funds are important, too!

The July 10 newsletter was particularly interesting in that it reports a new strain of payroll phishing that has surfaced recently. The bad actors pose as employees and request a specific pay stub from a payroll administrator or corporate executive. KnowBe4 reports that it has seen hundreds of these phishing attempts, all almost identically worded and possibly coming from one set of fraudsters. All of the emails came from an “oddball Comcast.net email address” with nonsense usernames of similar length.

Please read this newsletter carefully and pay attention to the emails and supporting documents. In this particular case, the bad actors opened a bank account, ordered checks for that account and used one of those checks to support the phishing attempt.

Unfortunately, many of the targeted payroll employees, always willing to help employees with their payroll concerns, have responded to the requests. The emails are simple, direct and dispense with any attempt to construct believable backstories or pretexts.  According to KnowBe4, the emails invite an unthinking, reflexive response from targeted users.

Share this information with your staff members and encourage them to avoid those unthinking, reflexive responses!

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Tax titles are precarious in SC

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New Court of Appeals case demonstrates this fact again

A South Carolina Court of Appeals case* decided on June 20 demonstrates once again how precarious real estate titles coming through tax sales can be in South Carolina.

The unfortunate facts are not unusual. Bessie and Willis Thompson owned a residence in Bamberg County. They died in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The residence was devised to three grandchildren, one of whom, Corretta McMillan, was involved in this case through the appeal. The estates of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were not probated, leaving the Thompsons as the title holders of record.

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Corretta McMillan paid the 2005 property taxes, but she did not notify Bamberg County of the deaths of her grandparents, nor did she provide a substitute address for tax notices. The 2006 property taxes were not paid, resulting in a letter to the residence from Bamberg County in the spring of 2007. In May of 2007, Bamberg County sent a second notice to the residence via certified mail. The letter was returned undelivered with the receipt marked “Deceased” above the names of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. McMillan never received the notices, and she rented to house to Bernard Hallman in the summer of 2007.

Bamberg County referred the property to the Delinquent Tax Office which held a tax sale in November of 2007. The tax office submitted a minimum bid on behalf of the Forfeited Land Commission (FLC), a commission within each county which exists to bid on real properties not otherwise sold at tax sales. Following this tax sale, however, Ralph Johnson contacted the tax office with an offer to purchase several dozen tax sale properties. The tax office assigned to Johnson the bids it had submitted on behalf of the FLC, allowing Johnson to purchase 39 tax sale properties, including the residence involved in this appeal.

In January of 2009, McMillan paid a portion of the outstanding property taxes. Bamberg County sent her a notice acknowledging receipt of her payment and informing her that there were still delinquent taxes due. No mention was made of the tax sale.

Johnson acquired a deed to the property in February of 2009, at which time he learned the property was still occupied by Hallman. Johnson asked Hallman to move out and later filed an eviction action. Hallman notified his landlord, McMillan, of the eviction action.

The magistrate held Johnson’s eviction proceeding in abeyance when the FLC filed suit against Johnson alleging the tax office had inappropriately assigned its bids to Johnson without FLC’s authority. This suit also alleged the tax sales had not been conducted in compliance with the “rigid statutory structure.” Johnson answered, cross claimed and counterclaimed. One of his theories was the two-year statute of limitations on challenging tax sales set out in South Carolina Code §12-51-160.

During a November 2013 hearing, McMillan appeared and informed the court that she was an heir of the Thompsons. The FLC abandoned its suit and the circuit court dismissed the FLC’s complaint and Johnson’s counterclaims with prejudice. The circuit court then entered a default judgment in favor of Johnson on his cross claims to quiet title.

On April 8, 2014, McMillan filed an answer and counterclaim to Johnson’s quiet tile action. Johnson maintained McMillan could not contest the validity of the tax sale because the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. At trial, there was no evidence that the property was properly posted with a notice of the tax sale once the second notice was returned marked “Deceased”.  The circuit court granted the quiet title demand.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, discussing the two-year statute of limitations and the technicalities required for a successful tax sale. The Court sited earlier cases which held that defects in quiet title actions are jurisdictional and may prevent the statute from running. Other cases have suggested that even in the absence of strict compliance, the statute of limitations will begin to run when the purchaser at the tax sale takes possession of the property.

In this case, the purchaser never took possession because he was unable to evict the tenant. That fact, and the fact that the property was not properly posted with a notice of the sale, led to the Court’s conclusion that the two-year statute did not run.

The moral to this story is simple: always discuss tax sale titles with your friendly and smart title insurance company underwriter. They generally keep up with these cases, no matter how tedious. **

*The Forfeited Land Commission of Bamberg County v. Beard, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5570 (June 20, 2018).

**Please see footnote 5 in this case. It’s rare that a footnote in an appellate case can make a lawyer cry (unless the lawyer lost the case), but this footnote summarized the exemplary career of the late Tanya Gee, who died in 2016. This case would have been her first case as a temporary justice on the Court of Appeals. After her death, the appellate process had to begin again. Rest in peace, Justice Gee!

SCOTUS refuses to review SC Episcopal property dispute

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It has been close to a year that I wrote in this blog that I was thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempted to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2, 2017*. I continue to be thankful that my mission is limited to the real estate issues in this difficult case because the United States Supreme Court refused to review that ruling on June 11. We are left with the difficult opinion issued in Columbia, and church officials and members from both sides of the dispute are left to sort out their on-going concerns in light of that ruling.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

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News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, prior to the ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

South Carolina’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, was the result of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need watch for a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

Feds extend timeframe of FinCEN order

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

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.

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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.

The Geographic Targeting Orders were updated again beginning March 21, 2018, and extended to September 16, 2018

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.

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!

Real estate agent rental scam exposed

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Two agents, one in Texas, and one in NY, allegedly involved

Most successful dirt lawyers have excellent working relationships with the real estate agents who assist their clients in buying, selling and leasing real estate. And most effective real estate agents prove themselves to be trustworthy in their business practices. Recently, two almost identical scams in remote states involved alleged real estate agents, according to a May 4 article in Housing Wire titled, “Two real estate agents caught behaving badly”, by Jacob Gaffney.

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The first story is set in Missouri City, Texas, and was originally reported by the television station, KHOU 11 News. According to this story, police are investigating a woman purporting to be a real estate agent who approached John and Pamela Hall offering to sell their dream home located at the corner of Montego Bay and Palm Harbour. The Halls had already vacated the home, and the alleged real estate agent promised to sell the home quickly. Both homeowners signed the paperwork allowing the culprit to list their home.

Several days later, the Halls were called by someone interesting in renting their attractive waterfront home from a listing they saw on Craigslist. When the Halls investigated the Craigslist entry, they discovered that the alleged real estate agent had actually created fraudulent documents, including a power of attorney and a deed, to take title to their home in the name of an LLC. When the Halls drove by their property, they saw someone moving in! The new “tenant” reported that he had paid $5,000 up front to lease the home.

The television station attempted to find the real estate agent’s name in the records of The Texas Real Estate Commission, but no such agent was found. The culprit used different names in dealing with the Halls and the tenant, and, so far, has been successful in stealing $5,000. The scam has no doubt caused a great deal of inconvenience to the Halls, not to mention the potential expenditure of funds in the form of attorney’s fees necessary to straighten out the public records.

The second story took place in Hampton Bays, New York. Southhampton Town Police said they received two complaints in February involving an alleged real estate agent taking deposits for a rental home. The prospective tenants were told the home was not yet available when the respective move-in dates approached, and the home owners had no relationship with the real estate agent and never received rent. Additional victims came forward, and police arrested Melanie Williams, 54, in April, on three counts of fourth degree grand larceny and three counts of first degree scheme to defraud. Detectives say they believe there may be additional victims in this scheme.

The Russian proverb quoted by President Ronald Reagan seems to be good advice in any situation concerning a real estate agent, or any professional for that matter, who is not known personally. Tell your clients to trust but verify!

Family squabble leads to promissory estoppel claim

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SC Court of Appeals doesn’t buy it

The facts of a recent Court of Appeals* case involve a dispute between brothers who immigrated from India. Sam Patel moved first, in 1979, and settled in Chicago. Sam’s extended family followed and lived with Sam and his wife. In 1989, Sam moved to Lynchburg, South Carolina, after he purchased a store on Willow Grove Road.

Sam’s family, along with his parents and his younger brother, Kim, followed. The family worked in and lived on the store property. The business grew, and the brothers acquired a store in Sumter. Kim Patel operated the store in Sumter, while Sam Patel continued to operate the store in Lynchburg. Over the years, Sam helped Kim financially.

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By 2010, Sam owned three parcels in Lynchburg and operated a liquor store, a grill and a gas station. Sam, himself, faced financial difficulties at this time, and his properties were foreclosed on by First Citizens. At Sam’s request, Kim purchased the properties through the foreclosure in the name of a limited liability company. Sam continued to run businesses on the properties and placed his businesses in the name of another limited liability company.

Sam’s LLC obtained the operating, lottery and alcohol licenses for the properties and made improvements. But Kim’s LLC expended funds for gasoline purchases and property taxes. There was never a lease or written agreement between the brothers or their entities concerning rent and expenses. And when Sam failed to pay rent, Kim’s LLC brought a suit for ejectment and damages. Sam and his LLC counterclaimed, alleging Kim had promised to convey the title to him.

At trial, the brothers gave conflicting accounts of their verbal arrangement. Kim testified that he told Sam he could continue to operate the businesses for six or seven months rent-free so Sam could get back on his feet. After that time frame, Kim expected his brother to pay rent, taxes, insurance and maintenance. Sam testified that Kim purchased the properties in order to convey them back to Sam. Sam intended to repay Kim over three to five years and have title returned to him after repayment.

The special referee’s order stated that Sam owned an equitable interest in the properties and had a right to repurchase them, but that Sam owed Kim approximately $42,000 for expenses.

The Court of Appeals held that Sam’s claim of an equitable interest based on promissory estoppel failed, stating that promissory estoppel is a flexible doctrine that aims to achieve equitable results, but it, like all creatures of equity, has limitations. The court said promissory estoppel is a quasi-contract remedy with four elements:  (1) a promise unambiguous in its terms; (2) reasonable reliance upon the promise; (3) the reliance is expected and foreseeable by the party who makes the promise; and (4) the party to whom the promise is made must sustain injury in reliance on the promise. The court held that Sam’s claim failed on the first two elements.

The testimony of Sam and Kim at trial made it clear, according to the Court, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the terms of the alleged contract. In other words, there was no unambiguous promise to be enforced. And Sam’s reliance was held to be unreasonable in light of the ambiguities of the alleged promise.

The case was remanded to the special referee to conduct the eviction proceeding and to determine rent and expenses between the parties.

 

A&P Enterprises, LLC. v. SP Grocery of Lynchburg, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5545 (March 28, 2018).

Two new fraud scams

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The fraudsters keep updating their repertoires!

Fraudsters are creative! It seems as soon as we learn and educate our staff members about new fraud schemes, the swindlers change their schemes to keep us on our toes. I wanted to pass along two new schemes that recently came to my attention.

The first was reported in our company publication, Fraud Insights, and it involved a residential sale in Las Vegas. An astute title insurance company employee, Larissa Conrad, was able to frustrate the fraudster’s plans. Here’s how the scheme unfolded. On March 7, Larissa sent an estimated closing statement to the listing agent. The closing involved the payoff of a Wells Fargo mortgage. The listing agent purportedly sent back to Larissa, by email, an “updated” payoff statement. Larissa compared the two payoff statements carefully. The wiring instructions were particularly troubling:

Larissa called the payoff lender and confirmed her suspicion that the second payoff was from a fraudster. She then called the listing agent, using a trusted telephone number, and reported that someone was posing as him in the transaction and sending emails from an account that looked like his. She wired the correct payoff amount using the correct wiring instructions, saving $153,300.37.

The second scam, involving texting, was reported by CyberheistNews. The victim receives a text asking whether a password reset for a Gmail account has been requested. If not, the text advises, please reply with the word “STOP”. If the victim replies with “STOP”, the next text urges the victim to send a six-digit numerical code in order to prevent the password from being changed. By sending the code back to the attacker, the victim is enables the bad guy to complete the password change and to have access to the account and all its email.

Remember that Google and other companies will not ask whether you don’t want to do something with your account. A reply to a text like this often notifies the fraudster that a valid telephone number has been reached.

two factor authentication

A two-factor authentication process is highly recommended because it provides an additional layer of security and makes it harder for attackers to gain access. The victim’s password alone is not enough to pass a two-factor authentication process. Typically, the first authentication factor would be based on knowledge (a password) and the second factor would be based on possession (of an ID card, a token or a smartphone, for example). Ask your IT professionals for assistance is keeping your accounts safe by using this process.

And, as always, the best advice may be to keep schooling yourself about the various scams as they are reported. I’ll do my best to help!