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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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!