Gears icon with text, Protect against wire fraud.

You’ve been looking for a bike that’s seemingly sold-out everywhere. Then, by sheer luck, you come across a listing for one on a classifieds site — and at a much lower price than anywhere else. It must be your lucky day! The seller requests you pay via money transfer. The website looks legit, the bike looks great in pictures, and the seller seems nice enough, so you send the money without realizing you’re a victim of wire fraud.

Across the board, money transfer scams (and wire fraud) like this are on the rise. Crafty criminals are leveraging this classic scam in new, but often common, ways — particularly in real estate dealings. Whether you’re a first-time homebuyer or regular online shopper, we have tips to help you protect yourself and stay one step ahead.

How Wire Fraud Works

Back in the day, wire fraud often required the scammer to make hundreds of phone calls to snare unaware targets. While the phone is still used, today’s cybercriminals more often leverage the internet to find potential targets.

Fraudsters reproduce sites, profiles, and listings to give the appearance of credibility and authenticity. Their fake postings (or websites), pictures, sad stories, get-rich-quick promises, or other social engineering schemes get their targets to send cash (via money or wire transfer) in exchange for promises, goods, and/or services that don’t actually exist. And recently, fraudsters have preyed on the lonely through dating or social media websites with fake profiles.

Unfortunately, no one is immune, from Gen Z to millennials and beyond. Would-be fraudsters are utilizing timely and opportune scams to defraud unknowing targets more than ever. But knowing what to look for — and when — can help keep you protected.

Wire Fraud in Real Estate

Mortgage interest rates have reached near historic lows, and many folks recognize it’s a great time to refinance or buy a home. Some millennials are looking into buying their first homes, and fraudsters are looking to capitalize by creating scams that leverage wire or money transfers.

Across the current housing market, some scammers often replicate legitimate real estate listings with slightly modified ads (like changing the email, phone, and contact information) on authentic sites. Others fabricate advertisements for places and things that aren’t for rent or sale. And in some of the most extreme situations, criminals lure victims with listings of residences that don’t actually exist and attract attention by offering below-market value for them.

The fraudsters impersonate mortgage lenders, or even the homeowner or property owner if you respond to these ads. They ask you to wire an application fee or brokerage fees. An unaware buyer may begin the entire process with a person who’s not the seller or lender at all and, throughout the process, continue to be scammed out of more and more money.

In some cases, fraudsters may go as far as hacking into a victim’s email account and searching for key words (like bank, mortgage, real estate, loan, etc.) to get a list of all parties involved. The fraudster creates a new email address very similar to one of the third parties, like the title company, and sends an email posing as that person — they might ask for personal information, send wire transfer instructions, or even divert the real payment when you’re close to closing the transaction. It’s very difficult to catch or track the criminal, and, once money is wired, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get it back. That’s why it’s especially important to independently confirm any kind of wiring instructions in-person or using a known, trusted phone number.

Related: Here Are a Few Tricks to Help You Stay Ahead of Scammers

How to Avoid Wire Fraud

When it comes to wire fraud, whether in real estate or other industries, there are typically some early warning signs:

1. Unpreparedness: There’s an evident lack of organization.

When selling a home (or another expensive item), most folks are motivated to sell. If it seems like things are taking longer than they should, or the seller is disorganized, it can hint at a larger problem. Often, the fraudsters have limited access to much-needed transactional info and can only provide excuses.

2. False sense of urgency: Everything needs to be done now.

This one works in lockstep with being unprepared. Fraudsters push a deadline or sense of urgency so that you’re less likely to take a critical eye to the missing pieces or are more likely to make a mistake. You may even wire money without verifying fees, identities, addresses, and the property (or good or service) for sale.

3. Technology and distance issues: They can’t verify anything.

Validating someone’s identity is important when making any transaction, especially large ones in real estate. Fraudsters often blame lack of proximity and availability on why they can’t verify their identity. They may even pitch working with their own representatives instead of going through official channels. You should feel empowered to insist on following the formal methods, such as working through a known and trusted attorney’s office for a housing transaction.

Wire transfers are a secure way to send funds. But you should always see the product or listing in person before sending any money or signing on the dotted line. If you are going to wire money, confirm the identity of the recipient. And, in the case of real estate, do a quick search online of the listing company to see if the contact info matches up and call to double-check.

What should you do if you’ve been targeted by wire fraud?

If you believe you’ve been a victim of wire fraud, immediately report the incident to your financial institution and your local FBI office, as they may be able to recover your stolen money. You should also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). They may be able to assist in further recovery efforts.

And remember: The best defense is a good offense. Follow these tips, remain proactive with your financial and cyber security, and stay alert. Our comprehensive roundup of the best tips to help protect you from cybercriminals will also help keep you on your toes when it comes to wire fraud and other cyber scams.

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