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!

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The SC Bar Warned Us!

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And then it happened to me.

phishing dangerJune 9th’s E-Blast from the SC Bar contained the following warning:

Alert: Phishing emails targeting lawyers
SC Bar members are cautioned to be aware of emails indicating that a complaint has been made against the lawyer or firm, or that they contain a special message from the Bar president. Such emails are not coming from the Bar and would be an attempt to phish members. Delete them immediately. Phishing emails are fraudulent emails that may contain links to phony websites or may request that you share personal or financial information by using a variety of techniques.

There may be clues, including a suspicious “from” email address. The email may include directions to click on a link, which purports to be a copy of the complaint or of the “special message.” Do not click this link, as it could be an attempt to put “ransomware” on the affected computer. Bar members are reminded that any official grievance would come via U.S. mail from the Supreme Court and that any important Bar announcement would appear in E-Blast or would be sent by an individual Bar staff member.

And on June 20, I received the following e-mail:Microsoft Outlook - Memo Style

A “complaint” is enough to strike fear in the heart of any lawyer. The scammers rely on a stress-induced knee-jerk reaction result in clicking on the link. Clicking on the link is the first reflex in our fast-paced world. Fortunately, we have received warning after warning about this kind of phishing activity.

The most obvious clues in this particular scam were:

  1. The e-mail was from “complaint Dept” and the address was complaint.depts@outlook.com. Nothing there reflects the SC Bar.
  2. The name of our bar association is the South Carolina Bar. The South Carolina Bar Association is a common misnomer.
  3. I don’t have a “law practice”. I work for Chicago Title Insurance Company.
  4. The South Carolina Supreme Court handles disciplinary complaints, not the SC Bar. And the Office of Disciplinary Counsel uses snail mail.

A huge thanks to the SC Bar for the warning!  Be careful out there!

Buried in the Dirt

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Are you sure your IOLTA account was properly established?

A Charleston lawyer just shared a bit of an Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) horror story with us, and I’m passing it along for the benefit of all South Carolina practitioners to prevent at least one surprise in future certification attempts.

businessman pennies

This lawyer was being vetted by a third-party vendor for the purposes of staying on the good side of a lender. The vetting company advised that the lawyer’s IOLTA account had been set up incorrectly using his firm’s Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN).  The lawyer called The South Carolina Bar Foundation and learned that the account should have been set up using the Foundation’s TIN: 23-7181552. In order to make this change, the bank required the lawyer to open a new account…with all that entails.

As a review, here are some IOLTA facts.

  • These accounts must be used for client funds that are small in amount or expected to be held for a short time, so that the funds cannot practically be invested for the client because they won’t provide a positive net return.
  • Funds that do not meet the nominal or short-term fund requirements of an IOLTA account should be deposited in a separate demand account to earn interest for the benefit of the client, and the client’s TIN should be used.
  • Some financial institutions waive all fees for IOLTA accounts. If reasonable and customary fees are charged, those fees may be deducted from interest. Other fees and service charges are the responsibility of the attorney.
  • There should be no tax consequences for the attorney or client for IOLTA accounts.
  • The Bar Foundation maintains a list of eligible financial institutions on its website.
  • Rule 1.15(h) of the SC Rules of Professional Responsibility mandates that all lawyers with trust accounts must file a written directive with their bank requiring the bank to report any non-sufficient funds (NSF) transactions. This mandate applies to IOLTA accounts.

Check your IOLTA accounts and make sure you’re in compliance before the vetting companies arrive on the scene!

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!

Donut Fridays

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Ethics Opinion gives them a thumbs up!


donutsSavvy residential dirt lawyers continue to explore innovative marketing methods. A recent Ethics Advisory Opinion (15-02) issued by the Ethics Advisory Committee of the South Carolina Bar blessed the following scenario, with a few caveats:

“Law Firm would like to pursue a practice referred to as “Donut Friday,” where an employee of Law Firm visits the Firm’s existing vendors (e.g., banks, real estate agencies, etc.) and delivers a box of donuts to these vendors. Included with the box of donuts are a dozen koozies bearing the name of Law Firm, as well as a fee sheet, a pamphlet containing information about Law Firm and its staff, and a coupon for $50.00 off Law Firm’s fee for a consultation or real estate closing. None of the marketing materials is addressed or directed to any one person, nor does the material request that existing vendors refer business to Law Firm, although the intent is to receive referrals.”

The Committee stated as a preliminary matter that the mere delivery of gifts or other marketing materials to a business generally without delivery to specific individuals does not constitute solicitation. For that reason, Rule 7.3 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility does not apply. Enclosing law firm materials in a donut box does constitute lawyer advertising, making the remainder of the advertising and communication rules (7.1, 7.2, 7.4 and 7.5) apply.

Because the donut box recipients are existing law firm vendors who refer closing business to the firm, the specific rule at play, according to the Committee, is Rule 7.2(c), which prohibits giving “anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.”  The Committee specified that as long as the weekly donut boxes are delivered regardless of whether the lender or real estate agency had referred clients to the law firm that week, and regardless of how many, then the requisite quid pro quo for a Rule 7.2 (c) violation does not exist. The rule would be violated, however, if the delivery of donuts was contingent on the referral of business.

keep_calm_and_eat_a_donut

The Committee said that only the donuts, koozies and coupons (not the fee sheets or pamphlets) would be considered things “of value” under Rule 7.2 because the rule contemplates value to the recipient and not cost to the sender. Finally, the Committee stated that although the Rules of Professional Conduct are “rules of reason”, the prohibition on giving “anything” of value contains no explicit de minimis exception.

Kudos to the law firm that devised this marketing ploy and received the blessing of the Ethics Advisory Committee!