With home buyers facing historically low inventory, many are eager to make a deal as soon as possible, which makes them vulnerable to fraud.
A growing scheme is taking advantage of these house hunters as scammers are posing as brokers and soliciting fraudulent down payments.
Becoming a new homeowner became a dream-turned-nightmare for Carly Andreatos, who was days away from buying a new home when a scammer contacted her.
"I had gotten an email that day -- right around the same time that I was on the phone with the title company -- and it [listed] instructions on how to send the wire transfer," she told ABC News.
Andreatos followed the email's instructions and completed the $24,000 wire transfer, assuming she had paid off her down payment.
"The next day, I'd got a call from my closing company, and they stated that they had never received the funds," she said.
She's one of several consumers victimized by the rising cases of real estate wire transfer fraud, said Thomas Cronkright, co-founder and CEO of CertifID, a company focused on wire fraud prevention solutions.
"Last year was a breakaway year, unfortunately," he said.
How does it work? Experts say in many cases, scammers send phishing emails to brokers and title companies, allowing them to hack into their email accounts.
The scammers then use that information to trick buyers and sellers into thinking they're being contacted by their realtors or title companies.
They do so by creating fake email addresses that look similar to the official addresses that buyers and sellers have contacted and then send money wiring instructions.
Stephen Dougherty, a financial investigator with the U.S. Secret Service, said scammers utilize what is called a "display name tactic."
"In their email settings, they can actually display the name of the realtor or title agent instead of looking like the actual email address they use," he said.
Sometimes, they even copy and paste title brokers' email signatures into attack emails, Dougherty said.
"These guys are very efficient criminal networks ... They have cells located everywhere -- here in the U.S., Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, you name it. They are local. They are global," he said.
While the Secret Service said it has recovered approximately $210 million for real estate fraud victims since 2019, criminals are moving faster than ever.
"We're seeing funds move," Dougherty said. "Before, we used to have a 72-to-48-hour window. Now funds are moving within 24 hours, even faster than that."
Anyone who falls victim to a real estate wire fraud scam should report the incident to their bank immediately so that officials can attempt to recover funds.
Homebuyers should follow these tips to protect themselves from these types of schemes:
- Check email and URL addresses used in communications asking for a money transfer. Conducting business on cell phones can make detecting fraud harder since web addresses can appear differently on desktop and mobile browsers.
- Verify the payment process with closing agents and parties involved. The process of sending money should never change, so emails instructing buyers to send money differently before the closing should be a red flag.
- Call the title company before any money transfer to confirm that funds are going to the right place.
The Secret Service also told ABC News that these types of schemes often happen before the weekend when consumers are busy and trying to complete tasks.