BBC Panorama reported last night on how easy it is to hack into computers and websites.  Ostensibly about the TalkTalk hacking, the programme also reported on the alarming case of someone whose email account was hacked to divert a significant sum of money that was supposed to be used to buy a house.   

We all want the convenience of e-mail, but in a climate where cybercrime is increasing (and, it seems, easy) everyone needs to be guarded in the way we use it for high value financial transactions.

Other similar conveyancing frauds, where email accounts have been hacked and huge sums of money stolen, have been reported since early 2015 and it seems to be increasing. 

Hacking fraud in property transactions 

This is how it works, taking just two of the examples reported recently in the national press. The first example was a property sale, the second a property purchase, but in both cases the fraudsters intercepted the e-mails between a solicitor and client. 

In the first case the solicitor had asked, by e-mail, where the client wanted the sale proceeds to go. The client replied with the bank account number and sort code. It seems that this e-mail was hacked by criminals, possibly using some form of software that sifts through e-mail traffic on the hunt for the ‘tell-tale’ formula of digits that make up a bank account number and sort code.  Using the e-mail address from the client, they posed as the client and sent an email to the solicitors asking for the sale proceeds to be sent to a different account number. When the sale completed the solicitors sent the £330,000 to the fraudsters’ bank account.

In the second case £299,000 was stolen. The money was intended to be used to buy a property. The solicitors acting on the purchase gave their clients their account details, confirmed in an e-mail. Shortly before the sale someone posed as the buyers’ solicitor and e-mailed the client – from what looked like the same email account - notifying them of a change in the bank account details. The fake email was supported by the unique client number that the solicitors had allocated, which lent credence to the forged e-mail (but that was information gleaned from the hacked e-mail account too). Confident in the reliability of the fake e-mail, the buyers duly sent the purchase monies to that account, which was of course the one set up by the fraudsters.

What to do if you are a victim

To recover the funds the first action is immediately to notify the bank to freeze the rogue account. In many cases this is effective to recover some of the cash. However, these types of fraud often take place on Fridays, allowing extra time for the monies to be diverted onwards over the weekend before the receiving party notices the monies have not arrived in the correct bank account as expected. A freezing injunction is possible by application to court, but most banks ought to react swiftly so that a police restraint order or freezing injunction is not needed.

Once an e-mail account is hacked and monies diverted, reassuring (but still fake) e-mails can be sent by the fraudsters to keep the scammed parties off the trail until all monies have been siphoned away. The moment any suspicious activity is noted, do not rely on your e-mail a moment longer.  Speak to the solicitor and/or bank in person urgently.

Who is to blame? 

To make the crime work fraudsters must open bank accounts in false names. The identity checks that are carried out by banks are therefore absolutely crucial. They are not always fool proof but questions must be asked about what the bank did to verify the account holder on opening the rogue account. 

If monies are transferred using account numbers and sort codes alone then the mismatch between an account holder’s name and the client sending or receiving the money would not be known either by the bank or the solicitor: perhaps a return to using account holders’ names ought to be considered to make the fraudsters’ task harder.

Is the solicitor at fault?

Where monies are being sent from the solicitor, then it is likely that a careful and aware solicitor should have noticed some signs of the fraud before it happened. If a solicitor pays client monies to a third party, against instructions and in circumstances where they ought to have known better, then they are liable to repay the funds. Examples of the things that solicitors should react to and stop the transaction might be odd e-mail addresses, strange (ie forged) e-mail exchanges with their client, late notification of a change to the payee bank account or possibly other documents that do not appear to be genuine. Any combination of these ‘warning flags’ should trigger suspicion in a prudent solicitor.  If a solicitor carries on and transfers money against that backdrop, and the cash goes to a fraudster, then there is likely to be a claim against them.

Summary

The distress caused when life savings go missing must be intolerable. In the cases reported the people involved were left with an agonising wait whilst the banks tried to recover the stolen funds. Not all of the monies were captured before they disappeared in cash withdrawals or by transfer overseas, but our experience in dealing with conveyancing and fraud claims over many years is that there is likely to be some recovery due from the solicitors involved if they paid monies out. Solicitors have a clear duty to protect client funds and they should have insurance to cover losses in these situations.

If you have suffered a loss similar to this please telephone Susan Hopcraft or Tariva Thomas for more information. 

About the authors

Susan Hopcraft Partner

Susan advises on all aspects dispute resolution particularly in the financial services sector. She has extensive insurance, professional negligence and restrictive covenants experience. She deals with claims against solicitors, valuers, surveyors, brokers and accountants, fraud issues, recoveries for lenders and bank mis-selling.

Tariva Thomas Associate

Tariva is a member of the Tax and Financial Services Litigation team dealing with disputes relating to investments, tax avoidance schemes and pensions. Tariva advises corporates, individuals, financial institutions and FCA regulated firms.