(TNS)—Q: I am getting ready to sell my house. I spent many years paying off my mortgage and am worried about something terrible happening to my proceeds. I need that money to buy a condo and retire. How can I protect myself?
A: You are right to be cautious. Financial crime and fraud are a problem in the real estate industry. From counterfeit cashier’s checks to fake deeds, criminals can be very creative in separating you from your money. Fortunately, even with the problems in the industry, almost all closings occur without a problem. However, you do have to be diligent to make sure that you are not a victim.
Rather than repeat the advice found quickly with a web search, I am going to give you some tips I have picked up over the thousands of closings I have been part of. To be clear, this is in no way meant to be an inclusive list, but rather my supplement to the conventional wisdom.
Once the title and escrow company is chosen, you should verify their license and underwriter. Go to the state insurance website, and you will find a link to do this. Once you check their license, confirm their phone and address independently on the web and not from their website. If you are local, get in your car and drive to the title company to introduce yourself.
Most fraud involves the fraudster hijacking or spoofing someone’s email address and sending fake wiring instructions. Face-to-face is the safest way. Since this is not always possible, a phone call can be made using the verified number to verify what was sent to you. Email is a great tool, but it has made people shy away from phone calls and face-to-face interaction. Getting to know the people involved in your transaction makes it easier to tell if something seems suspicious later.
The best way to avoid being a victim is to listen to your gut. Be on the lookout for things that seem strange. For example, it is highly unlikely that your title company will switch banks accounts during the several weeks it takes to close your deal. If you are told to send your money to a different account, you should be highly suspicious. Similarly, a buyer will not be asked to send in their closing money long before closing.
Criminals prey on the fact that you only buy or sell a house occasionally and are not familiar with the process. Fight this with education and diligence.
Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar.
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