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Don’t be a victim of online fraud

Cybercrime is a major global problem and South Africa – and the real estate industry – is not exempt.

The South African Banking Risk Information Centre recently revealed that cybercriminals made off with over R262 826 888 from digital banking fraud alone in 2018 – a staggering sum for a country whose citizens are already under severe economic pressure.

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

“Without the right security in place, cybercriminals are able to intercept electronic communications. 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 probably have been moved onwards immediately on receipt.

Clarke 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. Don’t rely 100% 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, he says it is also a good idea to visit your conveyancer and real estate agent’s offices in person to sign any documentation face to face.

“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 hard copies of verified bank account details.”

Using a more established service provider can also be a good safety measure, as Clarke says smaller operators seldom have the budget for top-tier digital security solutions.

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

“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.”

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

“When you’re dealing with people’s life savings, as we so often are in property transactions, there’s just no excuse for taking unnecessary risks. The digital landscape is constantly changing and cybercriminals are becoming more and more sophisticated every day,” Clarke says.

“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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