Cybersecurity in International Real Estate

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Targeting International Real Estate Agents

Cyber scams have touched nearly every industry in today’s world. And, as scammers become more sophisticated with how they approach their scams and take advantage of innocent people. Unfortunately, real estate agents are no strangers to cyber scams, as the nature of this industry allows for a lot of holes where scammers can slide in. Yet, on an international level, there are even more scenarios that could occur, potentially harming you, your clients, and your business overall.

So, what are these scams, and how do you know what you and your clients should watch out for?

Phishing Scams

Phishing scams is an attempt by a hacker to get your sensitive data and information. By just having a little information on your client, these scammers can contact them and trick them into getting more information. They can do this either by crafting an email that looks like something a company would send out as a reminder (update your password or something of that nature), or even a phone call saying they are from so-and-so's place, contacting them to confirm their information.

Most of the time, people don’t realize they are being scammed because the email or call they receive seems so official, they wouldn’t second-guess it. In international real estate, this can happen because the scammer can pose as one of the vendors you’re working with, or even you! When the client sees an email from the country they are looking to move to, they may think, “Well, the only person I know from this country that I’d be getting emails or calls from MUST be someone working with my housing agent!” and they proceed to supply the hacker with whatever info they are asking for.

Credit Card Fraud

If your clients are using their credit card while they’re traveling to meet you, there’s always a chance that they could have a breach on their card. The same goes for ATM skimmers. While you’re not meant to be an expert on this and your clients should definitely be aware of what can happen, it never hurts to remind them of these scams and do what you can to make sure they are avoided.

For instance, if you and your client meet for a meal while they come to look at properties, be sure to take them somewhere with an honest staff (unless you’re paying!). Most credit card companies will notify their customers if there’s been suspicious fraud, so if your client wants to know how they can use their phone number abroad or access their bank in case of an emergency, try to offer some resources - even if it’s an address they can have their new card sent to in the event that fraud occurs.

Identity Theft

Identity theft can really happen to anyone, but the more accounts you have - which is not uncommon for people who live their lives in various countries - the more likely it is that someone can breach your data and steal your identity. Typically, you can spot a breach before it gets to the point of identity theft, but it is important to change your passwords often and/or use secure passwords that are hard to guess.

You may also want to consider using identity protection software to be as secure as possible. What you can do as an agent is be sure that the person you’re talking to is always your client. Someone can always pose as your client and talk to you without even noticing, in which case both you and them could become the victim.

Data Collection

How much of you and your clients’ data is falling into the wrong hands? These days, it’s hard to look at anything online without giving up at least some of your data. So, just be careful about what you and your clients put online. Always as their permission, for example, before you post a picture with them on social media. This could lead to someone taking advantage of the knowledge that they are away in another country, their home vacant. Be in control of your data!

Wire Fraud Scams

In real estate, the most common—and terrible—scams are wire fraud scams, and they happen more often than you think. This is when money that’s being sent electronically (usually to put down a deposit, closing costs, etc.), is diverted to another account, because the person paying doesn’t realize that the account number they’ve been given for transferring funds is actually the account of a hacker. This is just one method, but the result is using the same—money that’s never seen again.

According to Louisiana Realtors, “Cybercriminals are increasingly sending false messages on behalf of home sellers, home buyers or borrowers, real estate brokers, title companies, and lenders, regarding the transfer of funds associated with a real estate transaction. According to new data provided by the FBI, in fiscal year 2017, nearly $1 billion ($969 million) was ‘diverted or attempted to be diverted’ from real estate purchase transactions, and wired to ‘criminally controlled’ accounts.”

How to Avoid Scams as an International Real Estate Agent

First and foremost, cybersecurity concerns should be at the forefront of your real estate business. It may be worth investing some money in ensuring that you’re doing everything you can to keep you and your clients safe. For some brokers, this is not only a recommendation, but it’s the law. Companies who are audited and shown to not be doing enough, can pay hefty fines.

But, avoiding a fine shouldn’t be your incentive. Clients generally want to work with someone who cares about their security, and may even ask this when interviewing agents. This is even more true when clients are working with an international real estate agent, as there are many more opportunities for hackers as correspondence and transactions happen overseas.

Simply put, if you don’t have the knowledge or skill set to prioritize your cybersecurity, that’s okay. But, you should find someone who can do it for you.

In the meantime, giving warnings to your clients about not accepting wire instructions via email and urging them to confirm wire instructions over the phone (by them making the phone call numerous times, cross-checking, etc.) is the way to go. Verification and security is key, and avoiding sending large sums of money at once—or putting it in Escrow—could be a good idea depending on the situation. It may also be a good idea to get yourself insured for cyber scams.