Ed Foster of County Solicitors: Avoiding online fraud

Ed Foster has been struck off the Solicitor's Roll

In this festive season it is important to remember that not everyone will be thinking of peace and goodwill. Criminals see this manic period as the perfect opportunity to steal from preoccupied members of the public, with an increasingly popular method being online fraud.

Online fraud doesn’t just include retail fraud or selling scams. As one of the busiest times for conveyancing transactions, over the Christmas period, on a daily basis, thousands of people will be buying and selling their homes and millions of pounds will be passing between clients, banks and solicitors. With such large sums involved, online fraudsters target this as an extremely attractive market for their crimes.

As you would expect, the fraudsters’ methods are progressively more sophisticated and there are consequently many unwitting victims. Sadly everything may appear normal until your money disappears.

Online scam

So to highlight this, here is an example of one online scam that a major high street bank says is taking place:

“Fraudsters are currently hacking into email chains between a house buyer or seller and their solicitors. The fraudster monitors the communications using malware that looks for key words like house purchase, deposit, buy and payment – and then they make their move. They hack into the email account and contact the client disguised as the solicitor’s company they have been liaising with. The fraudsters tell the client by email that the solicitor’s bank account details have changed or they amend the account number before the client gets it.

“The fraudsters give the details of the ‘new’ account for the deposit to be sent. Unknowingly, the client transfers their money to the ‘new’ false account. The false account is owned by the fraudster, leaving the solicitor or client at a substantial financial loss.  Unfortunately in these circumstances, the bank cannot recover the funds because they are authorised.”

However, at County Solicitors, working with our regulators, we have been aware of this and similar scams for some time. As such, we take a number of steps to prevent their infiltration; this includes always confirming any change of bank account requests with the client, another solicitor or, in the case of corporate transactions, a colleague making the change. We also undertake a search on a lender’s system which independently confirms another solicitor’s bank account. Then, when any request is made, we always refer to the original contact, with their original email or correspondence address, not the new address requesting the change.

So what can you do to protect your money and prevent such fraud?    

  • Think carefully about all emails you open, as just by doing this could download a virus onto your computer. This could then track the input of passwords and user names and send them back to the fraudster. Your anti-virus software should alert you to such activities but prevention is better than the cure.
  • Don’t feel pressured into changing any bank details. If you receive an email stating a change in the bank details, you should ring the solicitors on a previously used telephone number. Ask to speak to your regular contact if needs be.
  • Check the email address carefully and if in doubt phone the solicitor to check the information is correct.
  • Buyers and sellers should avoid using public Wi-Fi systems to check emails when house purchases are being made. Fraudsters can easily hack into vulnerable Wi-Fi systems.
  • Never access your online banking from a shared computer.
  • Avoid sharing social media posts about buying/selling your house. Fraudsters may get hold of this information and know the next step is a large financial transaction.

While the increase in online fraud is concerning and requires more online vigilance, these worries need to be balanced with the huge improvements in speed and efficiency that the internet has delivered. Thankfully there is no more waiting for cheques to clear before the keys to your home can be handed over.

Now with the necessary checks and safeguards in place, and a little common sense, as buyers and sellers, you, your Lenders and Solicitors can ensure your property transaction proceeds is fast, efficient, secure and hopefully stress free.