The FBI is warning homebuyers to be on the lookout for internet criminals who are sneaking into online conversations between buyers and mortgage companies or other participants in the sale process and providing false instructions that dupe purchasers into wiring funds to the criminals’ accounts, CNBC reported Thursday (Oct. 15).
“It’s a real-life nightmare happening now to thousands of Americans as they prepare to buy a new home: Money meant for the closing — hijacked,” anchor Shepard Smith said while introducing the segment.
The network said scammers have taken “$220 million this year, much of it diverted to China and gone forever.”
Aaron and Lindsey Fisher of California shared with CNBC their story of being robbed of a payment of $931,235 they made as part of purchasing a $1.4 million dream house.
Somehow, cyber-criminals inserted themselves into an email thread involving parties using an email address that closely resembled the Fisher's mortgage company's legitimate email accounts.
“All of us thought we were communicating with each other, and every time we sent an email we were communicating with the criminals,” Aaron Fisher said.
At some point, the criminals sent Fisher an email containing a Wells Fargo account number linked along with a fictitious account holder name. When Fisher sent the funds using the account number, it made its way to Wells Fargo and then Bank of America before the criminals withdrew it, according to CNBC.
Ultimately the funds ended up in China, according to an anonymous source cited by CNBC.
“They stole a lot of financial security,” Aaron Fisher said.
CNBC said the criminals are targeting purchasers in areas with especially high-cost homes.
Steven Merrill, chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section, told CNBC, “In certain markets, you could lose tens of millions of dollars in one sale.”
The Fishers got their money back. Bank of America reportedly said the clawback was possible because the fraud was reported to the bank quickly. The Fishers eventually bought the house — using a paper check.
Usually, the FBI reportedly told CNBC, the funds never are recovered.
The FBI’s Merrill says on the agency’s website that fraud is especially prevalent during times of national stress and suggests ways to avoid being scammed.
“Use extreme caution in online communication. For emails, verify who the sender is — criminals will sometimes change just one letter in an email address to make it look like one you know. Be very wary of attachments or links; hover your mouse over a link before clicking to see where it’s sending you,” the FBI says.
“In general, be suspicious of anyone offering you something that’s ‘too good to be true’ or is a secret investment opportunity or medical advice. Seek out legitimate sources of information.”
And, “For medical information, those trusted sources are your own doctor, cdc.gov, and your local health department. For financial information, that’s ftc.gov or irs.gov.”