Nat Hardwick convicted on 23 counts

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Nat HardwickMany South Carolina real estate lawyers know the name Nat Hardwick.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, 53, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

On October 12, Hardwick was convicted in federal court in Atlanta of 21 counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of making false statements to a federally insured financial institution. In federal court, sentencing is typically delayed, and the convicted person is released and allowed to get his affairs in order. In this case, however, Hardwick had been released pending trial on bond. After his conviction, he was described by the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him as a flight risk and was handcuffed and taken to jail immediately.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, was also charged. She reached an agreement in May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness.

Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

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ALTA develops wire fraud rapid response plan

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Dirt lawyers:  post this in your office!

alta-color-regIn this era where cybersecurity is our greatest challenge, American Land Title Association has benefited all of us in the real estate industry by developing a rapid response plan for wire fraud incidents. Two links are here, one to the plan itself and another to a response worksheet.

Many of our offices have been challenged with these incidents, and we have learned that time is of the essence. We are, in fact, hearing more and more stories where the diverted money (or some of it) actually gets returned when action is taken quickly. Every second counts! Use these resources to guide you and your staff in reacting immediately.

This plan guides offices in contacting banks, parties to the transaction and law enforcement officials at various levels. Websites for notices are included.

I recommend that you save these resources in a place where everyone in your office can access them. And I recommend that you make hard copies and post them in a central location in your office.

Be safe out there!

And thank you, American Land Title Association!

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.

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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 dirt lawyers sued for email funds diversion by a third-party criminal

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This is the first suit of this type I’ve seen. I’m confident it won’t be the last!

A dirt lawyer friend sent a copy to me of a hot-off-presses lawsuit filed in a circuit court in South Carolina against a closing law firm because the purchaser’s $50,000 in closing funds were diverted by a third-party criminal posing in an email exchange as the transaction’s real estate agent. My friend said he sent the case for my information. I think he sent it so I wouldn’t sleep!

Here are the facts as recited in the complaint. The names are being changed to protect all parties.

Paul and Penny Purchaser signed an Attorney Preference Form on March 28, 2017, selecting Ready and Able, LLC as their legal counsel for the purchase of a residential home and the closing of a purchase money mortgage with Remedy Mortgage, LLC.

On April 10, Paul and Penny Purchaser received Ready and Able, LLC’s “Purchaser’s Information Sheet” which required Paul and Penny to pay all closing funds over $500 to Ready and Able, LLC by wire transfer. The complaint states that these were silent as to the security of wire transfers, the security of private information to be conveyed between the purchasers and the law firm, and the security or lack of security of the use of email for closing information.

Also on April 10, Penny Purchaser telephoned the law firm and spoke with paralegal, Candy Competent, providing her with the purchasers’ Social Security numbers. The complaint states that Ms. Competent accepted the information and provided no wiring information or warnings.

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The complaint states that on April 14, Paul Purchaser received what purported and reasonably appeared to be an email from Regina Realtor, their real estate agent for the transaction, asking Mr. and Mrs. Purchaser to wire closing funds in the amount of $48,490.31 that day so that the closing scheduled for April 21 would not be delayed. Penny Purchaser replied to the email requesting wiring instructions. An attachment purporting to be wiring instructions for Ready and Able, LLC. was sent via reply email.  The complaint states that the wiring instructions reasonably appeared to be the correct wiring instructions for the law firm and appeared to be printed on law firm letterhead. This email exchange was actually with a third-party criminal.

Later on April 14, Penny Purchaser telephoned Candy Competent and requested the amount needed to close. Ms. Competent discussed the amount needed to close despite the fact, according to the complaint, that she knew or should have known that the law firm had not sent wiring instructions to the purchasers or the real estate agent.

On April 17, Ms. Competent sent an email to Mrs. Purchaser advising her to add $550 to the funds due to close to cover a survey bill that came in on April 14. No mention was made of wiring instructions in that email. The email also did not discuss the fact that the law firm had not yet provided an amount to close to the purchasers or to the real estate agent. Mrs. Purchaser wired $49,015.31 using the wiring instructions provided by the third-party criminal.

On April 21, Paul and Penny Purchaser learned for the first time that the wiring instructions were the work of a criminal third party, who received the funds and has failed to return the funds.

The complaint states two causes of action, negligence and legal malpractice, and lists the following breaches of duty committed by the law firm:

  • Requiring the plaintiffs to use wire closing funds to defendant, without counseling the plaintiffs about the methods by which the secure delivery of such funds could be compromised;
  • Failing to counsel the plaintiffs about the risks and insecurity of email communications, particularly of private, sensitive, or financial closing information; and
  • Failing to be alerted by the circumstances of Mrs. Purchaser’s telephone call on April 14, and therefore to warn her that no communication had been sent by the law firm.

Is this, in fact, negligence or legal malpractice?  We will have to wait to see.  Would the processes established by your law firm for the protection of your clients’ funds prevent this type of crime? That is the question of the day. Please discuss among yourselves!

Cyber Incident Preparedness for Closing Attorneys

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And what to do if you suspect a compromise

With the increase in wire fraud that is happening in closing offices around the country, our company recently shared two documents that I thought would be beneficial to pass along to all South Carolina dirt lawyers .

The first document is a Public Service Announcement from the FBI dated August 27, 2015 concerning Business Email Compromise (BEC). BEC is defined as a sophisticated scam targeting businesses working with foreign suppliers and businesses that regularly perform wire transfers. Legitimate e-mail accounts are compromised through social engineering and computer intrusion to conduct unauthorized wire transfers.

We have seen this happen in more than one law firm in South Carolina!

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This PSA states that the total number of victims from October 2013 through August 2015 was 8,179 and the total exposed dollar loss was $798,897,959!

The second document was prepared by Linda Grahovec, the Director of Education and Marketing for our company. This document provides two cyber incident checklists, one for use in preparing, and the other for use if your office is attacked.

Here are three pieces of advice for all closing attorneys:

  1. Use an e-mail system that requires two-factor authentication;
  2. Never wire funds based on the content of an e-mail. Always assume e-mail has been compromised, and validate the information by phone. A good practice would be to refrain from sending wiring instructions by e-mail.
  3. If you suspect fraud, contact the bank immediately.

Please remain vigilant! Read everything you can on this topic, and continue to update and guard your systems. One incident could easily put a law firm out of business. Title insurance companies are excellent sources of information and training on these topics! Call on them!