Buying a house is about the most stressful thing you can do. Often you have to deal with two firms of solicitors, estate agents, and vendors who are as stressed as you and have their own goals that may not dovetail with your own. You're spending the most money you will ever spend, and you have to rely on a solicitor you may never have met to guide you through a complex and slow-moving process. And now there is the threat of fraud.
The Telegraph has reported several times in recent months about fraudsters apparently duping solicitors, house buyers and vendors into transferring deposit money into scam accounts. It's a terrifying thought: you could lose your hard-earned deposit money to a filthy scammer. The reported scams involve fraudsters hacking into email accounts and monitoring exchanges between buyers, solicitors and estate agents, and then using the detailed information to con participants into transferring money into the wrong bank accounts.
In this article we explain how the house buying email scam works, and give tips as to how to buy a house without falling victim to fraud. (See also: Microsoft phone scam: don't be a victim.)
House buying solicitor email scam: how it works
As with all confidence tricks, this is doubly cruel because not only does it take money, but it does so in a way that makes the victim feel stupid. It is mainly targeted at first time buyers, as those selling and buying at the same time tend not to see their deposit money. The proceeds from the sale briefly rest with the solicitor before being passed on to the vendor. But it can affect anybody. Most of us buy a house only a few times in our lifetime, and so it is easy to be tricked in this way.
Simply put, in most cases the house purchaser is sent a plausible email that claims to be from either their- or the vendor's solicitor. In the email are bank details to which the recipient is advised to send the deposit for the house purchase. The bank details are genuine, but belong to the thief. Far from purchasing a home, the victim has just given away their deposit.
In some cases house buyers have received emails fraudulently claiming to be from "Samantha Horsfield", a genuine solicitor whose details have been cloned. A quick search would turn up that information, but the email details are wrong, the message is faked. It is almost impossible to tell that the email isn't genuine, and this is a scam that can catch anyone out.
That's because the fraudsters are hacking into email accounts and monitoring exchanges between buyers, solicitors and estate agents. This is a very targeted fraud, that is high yield for the thief. They wait until the moment of most tension, and then slip in a spoof email asking the buyer to transfer their deposit to the wrong account. Sometimes they even target solicitors direct – asking them to transfer sale funds to a different account. Because the email chain has been hacked, it is possible for the thieves to provide all the required security details.
As a consequence, the Solicitors Regulation Authority advises against using email in property transactions, but this is painful for clients and solicitors. At the sharp end of a house purchase or sale, you really just want it to be done, and email is a whole lot more efficient than snail mail, and more accurate than the phone. Solicitors should confirm bank details in writing, however. And it always pays to be ultra careful, and check via phone or face to face with your solicitor (your actual solicitor, not 'someone from the firm' who could also be a fake, especially over the phone). Follow the house buying tips below and you will be very unlucky get stung. (See also: How to avoid Gmail scams.)
Buying a house? How to avoid solicitor conveyancing email scam
The key to all of this is to confirm everything face to face or over the phone with your solicitor. Meet with your solicitor early in the process - ideally face to face but if not possible then over the phone. Agree the process for payment early in the process, during that conversation. Make sure you know what is going to happen, in what order. Check the details of your solicitor, both business and physical. And get the bank details as early as possible in the process - written down but not via email. If you are ever unsure about any aspect of the money transfer, don't do it!
Here are our tips for not falling victim to property buying fraud:
- Don't ever send tens of thousands of pounds to a bank account on the basis of an email. Speak to your solicitor to confirm the details. It is very rare for such details to change - if that happens, speak to your solicitor about it, either face to face or on a phone number you have used before.
- Do send a test amount first and then check over the phone that your solicitor has it. Even if the details haven't changed this makes sense.
- Agree a process for payment early on. As soon as you appoint a solicitor you should have a chat with them about what you expect from the process, and how you want it to work. Get a hard copy of the bank details then, and store them somewhere safe.
- If you do receive an email asking you to send money to a bank account, get in touch with your solicitor. But don't use any contact details provided in the email. They could be fake too.
- If in any doubt at all - do nothing and call your solicitor!
Remember, this is a sophisticated high yield scam. The scammer has taken the time to find out information about you, and will be able to answer queries. So don't trust anything you find in the email. Speak to your solicitor.
Lee Munson, security researcher at Comparitech.com, has this advice for house buyers:
"While I feel great pity for anyone who has fallen prey to any kind of fraud, and understand the reasoning behind it may be a lack of knowledge, it really doesn’t seem fair to lay the blame at the feet of the solicitor in this case.
"Sure, warning messages on emails may prove useful in a minority of cases, but let’s be honest here – the majority of people do not read the small print on any kind of communication, including legal documents.
"Thus, it is down to individuals to educate themselves on the risks of doing anything that involves a computing device, most notably where emails are concerned, and especially where large sums of money are directly involved.
"Staying alert and watching out for names, email addresses or bank account numbers that change over time will protect most people from this type of ruse, as will confirming details with the solicitor, over the phone, prior to transferring any funds." (See also: How to avoid WhatsApp viruses, scams and hoaxes.)
Conveyencing solicitor? How to avoid solicitor conveyancing email scam
Here is what the Solicitor's Regulation Authority advises solicitors to do if they are concerned about this scam or something similar.
"When a firm's or individual's identity has been copied exactly (or cloned), due diligence is necessary. If you receive correspondence claiming to be from the above firm(s) or individual(s), or information of a similar nature to that described, you should conduct your own due diligence by checking the authenticity of the correspondence by contacting the law firm directly by reliable and established means.
"You can contact the SRA to find out if individuals or firms are regulated and authorised by the SRA and verify an individual's or firm's practising details. Other verification methods, such as checking public records (e.g. telephone directories and company records) may be required in other circumstances." (See also: How to disable your webcam (and do you need to?)