It was last Tuesday that a law firm in Augusta found itself victim to a real estate scam the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office says is actually very common.
Frails and Wilson LLC, a firm that assists clients with real estate concerns, had been handling a wire transfer of $59,000 for a closing to Mariners MSE Sub 1 LLC, located in Hermosa Beach, Calif., when it discovered the funds had been sent to an unidentified person’s bank account in Maryland.
Investigator Carole Romero said the incident is a common real estate scam in which documents are fabricated to make the scammer look like the property owner. The scammer then deposits the money into a personal account.
“If you think about it, real estate agents have their cards just about everywhere and for them, the more people that have their cards the better,” she said.
But this exposure makes agents targets for crooks who replicate their information.
“It happens across the country,” Romero said. “Their accounts can be frequently hacked and that seems to be where the weak link is.”
A police report of the Nov. 21 incident states the company’s legal secretary said someone was able to send emails from an address similar to the name of the legitimate company to the scammer. The account was linked to a Bank of America in Baltimore, according to the report.
Romero, who is spearheading the investigation into the theft, advises companies to verify information before closing.
“The thieves are very clever,” she said. “They masquerade as the person you think you are dealing with by using the same letterhead, or they create email addresses (that are) just a little off so it looks like they’re coming from them. So, it’s very tricky and it makes people nervous about doing their service online or over the phone, but that’s just a warning to everyone out there to be very careful.”
Sgt. Steve Fanning, who works in the property crimes division of the sheriff’s office, said investigations into scams might take years. He said the office will incorporate other jurisdictions, but the task is often difficult.
“Every scam has its origins and its method of operations,” he said. “The lucky thing about investigating financial crimes is there is a paper trail and in that a paper trail is the most prominent thing about a financial crime investigation, and you have to subpoena those papers, so you’re at the mercy of turn around times for banks.”