A real estate scam that has apparently been making its way through email inboxes across the country for some time now has begun targeting lawyers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina State Bar.
Peter Bolac, trust account compliance counsel for the bar, said the bar first learned of the scam about three weeks ago. He said it has caused losses of up to $200,000.
“We began receiving reports of lawyers receiving emails purporting to be from either the seller in a real estate closing or a realtor involved in the closing, giving the lawyer new instructions on where to wire the seller’s proceeds at the end of a closing,” Bolac said.
Once the money is wired, it is immediately withdrawn by the crooks, who make a hasty getaway.
According to Bolac, the emails appeared to be legitimate but were actually sent from spoofed email addresses created by hackers. In many cases, the fake addresses differed from the actual accounts by just one character.
“In your day-to-day business, you may not have cause to look [closely at email addresses], but now it’s important to look because we know there are scams out there,” Bolac said.
It’s unclear whether hackers are targeting lawyers’ email accounts, those of realtors or other involved parties, or all of the above, but Bolac said they are accessing the accounts and obtaining all the information they need to pull off their capers: closing dates, parties involved and amounts to be wired.
“At that point, once you know all this information, you could fairly easily portray yourself as the seller and hope to get by,” Bolac said. “If you do this to a few hundred lawyers and get one or two bites, you’ve made a payday.”
In an email to its members, the bar included information it received from one firm that was defrauded. That firm, according to the email, had a two-level confirmation process to protect against such acts, but the perpetrators emailed and called the firm to confirm the wiring instructions as required.
Bolac said that similar attempts have been thwarted by lawyers who called the seller using a number they knew to be legitimate rather than accepting incoming calls that could be from anyone. That’s an easy way, he said, to help shore up a firm’s security.
“What we’re recommending is to obviously be vigilant with your emails and have some degree of skepticism with what you’re reading,” Bolac said. “Verify who is sending instructions and have confirmation with the sender of the email via phone, initiated by the lawyer, to a number that is in the client file and not something sent in the email.”
Bolac said that the bar and individual attorneys are working with law enforcement to recover lost funds and investigate the origins of the scams. The bar is asking that any attorney who has been the subject of fraud or attempted fraud contact the bar at [email protected] or 919-828-4620.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher