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Hackers siphoning money off real estate transactions in Utah

Posted at 6:03 PM, Jun 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-24 21:02:53-04

VERNAL, Utah — A warning for anyone about to buy or sell real estate in Utah: Hackers are finding success funneling millions of dollars to overseas accounts.

The hackers are targeting the booming real estate industry by spoofing emails to intercept loan money.

After the sale of an income property, Vernal real estate agent Emily Pedersen expected to get $60,000 at closing. By chance, she dropped in on her escrow officer to pick up the check.

“She said, ‘I was just going to wire it into the account you just gave me… It’s your email.’ We pulled up the email and, sure enough, someone had hacked me,” Pedersen said.

The escrow officer was just minutes away from sending the money to an off-shore account, thinking Pederson was still on the other end of the keyboard.

“They knew what they were looking for, which was scary,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen was one of the first real estate agents targeted back in 2015. Last year, hackers took $20 million from Utahns the same way.

“Everybody should be more aware. Anybody can be a victim,” Utah Division of Real Estate Director Jonathan Stewart said.

Stewart warns that scammers hack into the email accounts of real estate agents, their clients and title companies, then they silently monitor for a big money transfer. Shortly before the transaction, the hacker impersonates the email user, sending fake wiring instructions overseas.

“They don’t care about how much money, they just care about their ability to gain access to the money,” Stewart said.

Before a big transaction, Pedersen now makes a confirmation phone call because once the money is gone, it’s gone.

“It’s scary because it’s getting worse and people are just getting more and more clever on how to get this money,“ Pedersen said.

Stewart said the scam has become so common in Utah, the state is launching an ad campaign to warn others about the email scam.

Victims are urged to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation.