How not to be a victim of conveyancing fraud

The Times recently reported on the story of Zara Pawley who was left £40,000 short after her solicitors were tricked into sending the balance from a house sale to fraudsters. According to Zara, although she had previously provided her bank details in person to the solicitor, the firm was later fooled by a message that appeared to come from her. In the message, the impersonators said compliance checks were being carried out on her current account, and requested that the money should be sent to a different account. The solicitors complied without carrying out further checks.

This type of activity – known as ‘Friday afternoon fraud’ named after the day that most property sales complete – is becoming increasingly common.

Typically, fraudsters will gain access to emails between clients and their solicitors, before sending a spoofed email just prior to the conveyancing matter completing. The email will appear to come from the lawyer or client and will claim that the bank account details have changed, requesting that funds be sent to a different account: that of the fraudster. Often these spoofed emails contain phrasing, punctuation and grammatical errors.

As awareness increases, fraudsters are becoming increasingly innovative in their methods. On occasions the spoofed emails have been followed by telephone calls where the fraudster pretended to be from the bank’s counter-fraud team. On other occasions, solicitors have been called and asked to verify a specific transaction, under the guise that fraud may have taken place. At that point the fraudster has asked the solicitor to confirm their online security information.

Friday afternoon fraud accounts for the most cases of largest cyber-crime experienced by the legal sector. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has stated it receives on average 43 reports of misappropriated client money each quarter. It states that if a solicitor pays money into the wrong account, whatever the reason, it should make good the loss which can be recouped through their professional indemnity insurance if necessary. It urges any clients experiencing difficulties to contact them for assistance.

Sellers are not the only ones who can fall victim to Friday afternoon fraud. Buyers can be tricked into transferring funds to what they believe to be a solicitor’s account following receipt of a spoofed email containing the fraudster’s bank details. Many firms (including Breens) refuse to send or accept bank account details by email and will inform clients in person or post information to the client’s home address instead.

How to avoid conveyancing fraud:

  • Don’t mention your plans to move house or remortage on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites in case your post is seen by a fraudster.
  • Ensure you have antivirus and anti-malware software installed on your computer, tablet and smartphone – and keep them up to date.
  • Use strong passwords and change them regularly.
  • Avoid emailing your solicitor through public Wi-Fi.
  • Don’t send your bank account information to your solicitor via email and don’t use a solicitor’s bank details sent to you in an email. Take your bank details to your solicitor’s office in person, or telephone them using a number from their letterheads or the firm’s main website.
  • If you receive an email from your solicitor claiming that their bank details have changed during the course of the transaction, call the firm using a number from their letterheads or the firm’s main website. Don’t use the contact number contained in the email – it may be fake.
  • Double check the sort code and account number before sending any money. Don’t be afraid to call up your solicitor to check you have the details right.
  • If you think your money has been stolen, act quickly. Contact your bank straight away and ask it to notify the fraudster’s bank so the account can be frozen. This may prevent some or all of the money being transferred out of the fraudster’s account. You should also notify Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or through its website

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