If you’re buying a house or an apartment, you know that you have to satisfy your financial obligations on the day of the closing. And if you get an urgent e-mail from the title company that day telling you where to wire your down payment, you’re likely to follow those instructions, right? If you do, you might end up losing that down-payment money to a con artist.

Thieves impersonating real estate title companies are scamming home buyers out of their entire down payments. Complaints to the FBI about this online scam, which can cost victims tens of thousands of dollars, have skyrocketed.

How the scam works: Thieves hack into a title company’s client list, learn the details of pending sales and wait until the day of a closing when a buyer is required to send a down payment and closing costs to the appropriate parties. They then send a fraudulent but real-looking e-mail to the buyer purportedly updating the bank account numbers where the money should be wired. It’s easy to be fooled because you’re juggling so many details on closing day. Unfortunately, because you authorized the wire transfer, standard protections covering fraudulent withdrawals from your bank account don’t apply, and you might have to bear some or all the liability.

Self-defense: Be suspicious of any e-mail with last-minute changes related to your closing and wire transfers. You should have received information and instructions on the closing weeks before it happens. Verify any changes directly with your title agent and real estate agent and/or lawyer. And don’t call any phone number provided in any e-mail sent to you by a title company before independently checking that it is the number for that company, because phone numbers also can be illegitimate. If you do wire money to an account that you then discover is fraudulent, contact the manager at your bank as soon as you find out. Even if the wire has been sent, ask the manager to request that the receiving bank put a temporary freeze on the money if it’s still in the thief’s account until the problem is sorted out. File a local police report detailing what happened, as well as a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov.

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