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Don’t let cyber criminals intercept your real estate transactions

28 Oct 2019

Cybercrime has become a major global problem, and South Africa is far from exempt from this growing scourge.

Even the best security cannot guarantee 100% prevention of unauthorised access or interception of communications by cyber criminals.

The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) recently revealed that cyber criminals made off with over R2.6 billion from digital banking fraud alone in 2018 - a staggering sum for a country whose citizens are already under severe economic pressure.

According to Tony Clarke, MD of the Rawson Property Group, real estate transactions can be particularly attractive to cyber criminals since they tend to involve large sums of money transferred electronically. For this reason, he urges buyers and sellers to exercise extreme caution before actioning any electronic payments.

“Without the right security in place, cyber criminals are able to intercept electronic communications between agents, conveyancers, buyers and sellers,” says Clarke.

“They can then use that information to impersonate one of the parties involved in the transaction and redirect payments into their own accounts.”

Once this happens, it can be extremely difficult to freeze or reverse the transaction, particularly since the funds will likely have been moved onwards immediately on receipt.

He says fraudulent emails from impersonators can be extremely convincing, with authentic-looking documentation and electronic delivery details giving targets little reason to suspect foul play.

Thankfully, there are ways to avoid falling for this type of cybercrime.

“The best strategy is always to check and double check all the details before making a payment,” says Clarke.

“Don’t rely one hundred percent on any information received via email. Rather look up the phone number for your estate agent or conveyancer independently, call that - not the one from their email signature, and confirm any banking or transaction details with them in real time.”

“If possible, it’s also a good idea to visit your conveyancer and real estate agent’s offices in person to sign any documentation face-to-face,” he says.

This provides an ideal opportunity to familiarise yourself with the business’s corporate branding - making it easier to spot fake communications in future and request hardcopies of verified bank account details, says Clarke.

“Using a more established service provider can also be a good safety measure,” says Clarke.

Smaller operators seldom have the budget for top-tier digital security solutions and best-practice cyber-security training for employees.

“Strong business processes, secure email servers and protections that extend to communications sent from employees’ mobile devices make it much more difficult for cyber criminals to get that first foot in the door,” says Clarke.

“Unfortunately, these measures are often expensive to set up and maintain, putting them out of reach for a lot of smaller players in the property industry.”

Of course, even the best security cannot guarantee 100% prevention of unauthorised access or interception of communications by cyber criminals. This makes constant vigilance essential for buyers, sellers, agents and conveyancers, no matter how stringent their digital security may be.

“When you’re dealing with people’s life’s savings, as we so often are in property transactions, there’s just no excuse for taking unnecessary risks,” says Clarke.

“The digital landscape is constantly changing and cyber criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated every day. It’s up to all of us to do whatever it takes to make sure our transactions are handled safely.

“That means educating ourselves on the risks, taking precautions to secure our communications, confirming all details before acting, and trusting our instincts.

“If something seems fishy, there’s no shame in picking up the phone and asking about it - rather safe than sorry.”

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