Federal agencies urged mortgage companies and banks to be more vigilant in reporting compromised real estate transactions to their local financial crime units and to do so in specific ways that would increase the likelihood of an investigation.
According to representatives from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service during a panel discussion Monday, instances of wire fraud, home equity theft, investment scams and elderly-related fraud have ticked up, while the methods used by bad actors have become more nuanced.
“[The mortgage industry is a target-rich audience for fraudsters] and they are targeting title companies and real estate brokers by compromising business email accounts. We see a lot of that,” said Stavros Nikolakakos, supervisory special agent at the Secret Service at the Compliance and Risk Management conference hosted by the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington D.C. Monday. “If you don’t have direct contact information of your local law enforcement, [you should definitely establish that relationship].”
A way for mortgage companies to help government agencies, such as the FBI and Secret Service, catch bad actors is by being mindful in how they fill out consumer complaints including the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) form, which the bureau monitors and the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) form.
“For those of you that enter SARS, I would strongly encourage you to not hold back in filling out this information, put your conclusion and the amount stolen at the very top,” Nikolakakos said. “When you have agents reviewing these SARS they only skim them. They cherry-pick because agents are looking for easy arrests and they’re trying to find the very best cases. “
Timothy Wu, Supervisory Special Agent, Financial Crimes Section, Money Laundering, Forfeiture, Bank Fraud Unit at the FBI, added that the volume of fraud complaints received can make someone’s “eyes start to glaze over.”
“Fraud in the mortgage space is not the same as in 2008 and our fraud portfolio is much smaller,” he added. “We are seeing HELOC fraud and application fraud — nothing new or ground breaking — but these practices have accelerated and gotten better.”
Cash attained by these criminal acts are usually transferred to Eastern Europe, West Africa or China by money mules, Nikolakakos added.
Statistics published by the FBI show that business email compromise scams related to real estate set a record for dollar losses in 2022. The 2,284 complaints received last year amounted to losses totaling $446.1 million, compared with $430.5 million in 2021.
Those targeted by fraudsters have about 72 hours to report the event to the government before it becomes harder to investigate.
In a separate panel addressing fraud mitigation, Steve Safavi, vice president of mortgage fraud at Mr. Cooper noted that one of the best ways to prevent wire fraud is to be mindful of emails received prior to closing and the domain that is being used.
“As busy as you are at the end of the month, trying to get something funded it can get by,” he said. “Best thing to do is for title companies to call the lender and verify the wiring instructions. Have them repeat the payoff statement to you instead of vice versa.”
As fraud risk has increased, companies in the financial services sector have turned to vendors to protect their transactions and infrastructure. For example, recently Tata Consultancy Services announced a partnership with FundingShield to the fintech’s wire fraud prevention solutions available to the IT consulting company’s clients.