Across Massachusetts, would-be homeowners are falling prey to a scam that could cost them their entire down payment.
Ted Williams was on the verge of buying his first home in Andover when it happened to him.
"It's still devastating to think about," said Williams.
He lost $300,000 in a wire transfer scam. It was money that he had saved for years to buy a condo.
"When I went to the closing, I was informed that the money wasn’t there," said Williams. "I said, 'what do you mean the money isn't there?' I was just in total shock. I hadn't renewed my lease that was expiring. That was savings, everything I had chipped in to buy this place, just gone," recalled Williams.
It all happened because of a single email. Williams had been expecting an email with instructions for wiring his closing funds and he received the authentic message.
But moments later, he received a fraudulent email. It looked like it was from the same closing attorney but it wasn't. It said to disregard the first email and provided revised wire instructions. Unknowingly, Williams sent the money right into the hands of criminals who had been monitoring the email chain and sent the second bogus email.
"You're buying a home, it should be a great experience," said Williams. "I'm not trying to well up about it, but losing everything?"
The Boston FBI office says this is happening in the area every day and anyone who is engaging in any large wire transfer is at risk.
The agency says $53,000,000 was stolen last year in these real estate scams in Massachusetts area alone. They say these criminals are sophisticated, gaining access to email accounts and waiting for an opportune time to misdirect the wire transfer into an account that they control.
"These are very well crafted emails. Some of them look identical," said FBI Special Agent Mike Livingood. "Some take the signature block and incorporate them into the email. Some fraudsters study the language being used. So that they can emulate the language being used by the individuals involved in the transaction."
Livingood says buyers should always operate under the mindset that fraudsters are reading your emails, and verify information by phone before sending any money.
"People can be out $25,000, $50,000, $100,000 and beyond," said state Sen. Barry Finegold, who is also a partner at a real estate law firm. "This is as serious as anything we've ever dealt with in our industry."
Finegold says his firm has taken some preemptive steps, including using a good software that protects their communications.
Andover realtor Lillian Montalto, who represented Williams, says the scam has changed the way she does business.
"We are so careful now, we double and triple check everything," she says.
Williams was fortunate. His family gave him the money to buy the condo after the hack. Now he's warning other potential home buyers.
"Read everything carefully and double check before you send any money," he said.
The FBI has been successful in recovering money in some of these scams. If you discover a fraudulent transfer, time is of the essence.
Contact your bank first and request a recall of the funds. Next, contact your local FBI office and report it. You should also file a complaint with www.IC3.GOV, the FBI's online reporting tool.