Back in October I wrote that Wells Fargo Bank and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had issued separate alerts throughout the industry regarding settlement agent wire fraud. The reports provided details of a widespread scam whereby criminals are hacking attorney and title agent email addresses and changing wire instructions prior to closing. When the new instructions are not validated the criminals make off with the mortgage proceeds. Despite these warning, this crime scheme is spreading as title agents, lenders, attorneys and the consumers they serve are finding out to their great harm.
According to Wikipedia, Phishing is “the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money), often for malicious reasons, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.”
Although the FTC, through the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) have broadcast the need for data security and privacy measures to protect consumer non-public, personal information (NPPI), many banks either are unable or unwilling to implement the steps required to root out and block criminal enterprises in the US and overseas who are busy hacking into email accounts.
Several incidents around the country in the past few months have reflected a similar theme. Hackers accessed a lender’s email, either through a borrower’s address, a loan officer using a personal email domain not protected by a lender’s network, or an attorney’s email. The scammers then sent an email, either to the title agent, attorney or to the closing department of the lender, including revised wiring instructions. The wires were then sent to the criminal’s bank and not the intended recipient. In one case, which is now the subject of litigation in Florida, a title company is accused of neglecting to conduct appropriate internal data security measures after it received a bogus wire instruction and sent it off to a consumer who then wired the seller’s proceeds to someone else. With the money long gone, the seller is seeking recovery against the agency and the buyer for their alleged negligence.
Affirmative measures to combat this crime are being implemented by many in the industry. For example many lenders are taking an extra step and checking the ABA routing number and bank account number with the Federal Reserve website to verify that the account is actually at the bank indicated. Others are sending a verification of trust account to the settlement agent’s bank to verify that the account is truly a trust account in the name and for the business of the title agent, attorney or other closing professional.
Most title agents are now sending lenders and attorneys their title reports with cover letters containing language in red or bold black print with instructions such as: We no longer send wiring instruction by email, please call our offices to verify the proper bank information!
Phishing is not a new problem. In my research I found articles dating back to 2005 warning consumers and lenders about email phishing schemes designed to access and steal NPPI. It is clear that this is a serious problem that is getting more serious as technology has advanced and criminals have become more resourceful and bold.
Today, with the CFPB taking very firm positions on lender obligations to protect consumers from harm due to data security breaches, every lender is on notice that they very well could be the next victim of a scam, followed by the subject of an audit and/or enforcement action.