House for Sale signs in the UK
Foreign criminal gangs are increasingly hacking the email accounts of solicitors and estate agents so that they can interfere with house sales and steal funds when the sales complete Reuters

The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) is warning house buyers and sellers in the UK to be particularly careful after foreign crime gangs managed to steal over £10m ($14.6m) in 2015 through email scams.

The scammers make their money by hacking into the email accounts of solicitors, estate agents, buyers and sellers. They read the email chains sent between these parties, and then wait until the deal is about to complete, or the day of sale completion.

On that day, the hackers then send fake emails to victims stating that the bank account details have been changed at the last minute and asking the relevant parties to deposit money into a different bank account. As the email comes from the email account that was hacked, there is no way to tell that it didn't come from the original sender, and once the money hits the fake account, it is quickly transferred electronically into other bank accounts around the world that are impossible to trace.

The NFIB, which is part of the City of London Police, says that the number of incidents of conveyancing fraud is on the rise. NFIB operates the Action Fraud hotline and it noted only four cases between January to December 2013, rising to 26 cases in 2014 and finally 60 cases in 2015. The total combined losses for all 91 reports came to £10,220,275, which averages out at £112,000 per scam.

Scammers intercepting solicitor and estate agent emails

This is not the first time that we have heard about these email scams – they were first highlighted by the Telegraph in May 2015. A couple sold a London flat for £340,000, but two days before the sale completed, Paul and Ann Lupton were emailed by their solicitors requesting their bank details to transfer their funds to them.

Paul Lupton responded with his bank details, but his email was intercepted by the hackers, who sent a different email to his solicitors from his email account, asking them to send the funds to a different account.

In the end, the bank managed to freeze the account and returned £271,000, and £13,500 was recovered from another account. The law firm did not feel it was at fault for the remaining £48,500 loss, but fortunately the law firm's insurer eventually compensated the Luptons eight months after the original incident occurred.

Unfortunately, there have been many other incidents and victims have sustained tens of thousands of pounds in losses from these hacking scams. And what is worse, the Solicitors Regulations Authority says that five law firms a week now report that hackers are attempting to unlawfully access their emails, but the figure could be even higher since solicitors are not obligated to report hacking attempts.

Tips on avoiding being scammed or hacked

"It is essential that solicitors and potential house buyers are aware of this type of fraud and take every step to avoid becoming a victim," Steve Proffitt, Deputy Head of Action Fraud, NFIB told IBTimes UK.

"When sending important emails which include personal and financial information always think about the type of internet network that you're using and ensure that it is a secure network.

"If you receive an email which tells you that a person or company's bank details have changed, you must phone to verify it before making any financial transactions. Preferably talk to the solicitor whose voice you recognise to check the change of bank details. If you have been a victim of this type of fraud, please report it to Action Fraud."

Besides the tips mentioned by Action Fraud, we would also advise that you make sure to:

  • Never carry out any correspondence on public Wi-Fi;
  • Never open email attachments or hyperlinks unless you are absolutely sure they are safe;
  • Never install software that isn't from a trusted, established brand.