Christian Thauer, who currently lives in Nevada, wanted to buy a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Millinocket for his family, but digital thieves stole thousands of dollars from him, he said.  Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Cyber criminals are targeting real estate buyers for an increasingly common fraud scheme called real estate wire transfer fraud. Buyers should educate themselves about the scam, and take extra steps to verify all information sent to them, experts said.

Real estate wire transfer fraud happens when cyber criminals trick buyers into wiring them money. Scammers often do this by hacking into email accounts, monitoring conversations and posing as the closing agent at the last step of the transaction.

The scams can be devastating for victims. A Nevada man recently lost $78,000 while trying to buy a house in Millinocket, the Bangor Daily News reported Monday. And email fraud is an increasingly lucrative crime in Maine. Between 2019 and 2020, the amount of money pocketed in such schemes spiked more than 400 percent.

To protect themselves, buyers should verify any payment or wire transfer instructions they receive during the real estate buying process, no matter how legitimate they may seem, said Madeliene Hill, president of the Maine Association of Realtors. That usually means picking up the phone and calling the person handling the money for the seller.

“Never wire funds without personally speaking to the intended recipient,” Hill said. “Verify the contact information yourself and have your realtor verify that information also.”

Hill also advises clients to carefully guard their personal information, including social security numbers, credit card information and banking details.

“Never send any of that stuff unless it’s through a secure or encrypted email, or just deliver it personally,” Hill said. Buyers should also make sure their emails are secure, since fraudsters often hack accounts to monitor conversations. This means using strong passwords and two-step verification.

Len Foy, a Nashua, New Hampshire real estate lawyer who also practices in Maine, said whenever possible, buyers and sellers should use paper checks instead of wire transfers, he said.

“Give me the check, send me a check, mail me a check,” Foy said.

If a person does become a victim of real estate wire transfer fraud, they should immediately contact their financial institution and ask them to do a “swift recall,” Hill said. Victims should then contact both local law enforcement and the FBI, Hill said.

“These all have to be done as soon as possible,” she said.

Funds can often be recovered if the fraud is noticed in the first 24 hours. But the longer it takes to detect, the less likely the victim is to get their money back.