The FBI tells 8 On Your Side they have seen ten new real estate email hacking cases in the past two months in the Tampa Bay area alone.
The fraud happens as a result of real estate agents using unsecure email accounts that get hacked by scammers, who are usually based overseas. The scammer watches an agent’s business transactions, learns to sound like them in writing, waits for the deal and then strikes. They send clients emails that change wiring instructions to send down payments directly to the crooks.
The most recent Tampa Bay area case is that of Sean Vinson and his girlfriend. They lost their $10,000 down payment on their first condo. This is after their real estate agent, Inessa Kosonen, of Luxury Beach & Realty, used an unsecure Yahoo account that was hacked.
According to emails obtained by News Channel 8, she fell for an email from a scammer posing as a title agent, and she sent the scammer Vinson’s information. From there, Vinson received an email with fake wiring instructions. The email appeared to come from the real estate agent.
At first, broker Julie Simpson promised Vinson her agent’s commission. This is where the two, apparently, disagree on the details. Vinson said Simpson agreed to turn over $4,700 in the buyer’s side commission, said she’d let him know when the commission check arrived, and then went silent and stopped taking phone calls.
However, Lisa Brock, a public relations crisis manager, tells 8 On Your Side that Simpson recalls things differently. Brock said Simpson tells her that she did agree to turn over the commission at first, but that Vison rejected the offer, saying he wanted the full $10,000 that he lost. By the time Vinson changed his mind, Brock said Simpson said her attorney advised her to pay Vinson nothing.
Brock said Simpson is “very apologetic,” but feels her realty agency was a victim in the scam, too.
Andrew Sekela, a supervisory special agent with the FBI, said his agency has warned real estate agents for two years to use secure emails, but many don’t, and crooks are striking hard.
“Our best defense is raising awareness, but it’s up to each individual company, entity to take the appropriate steps,” Sekela said.
The FBI believes Vinson’s money wound up in Kenya and it is unlikely that it will be recovered.
Meanwhile, attorneys across Florida report calls from buyers in Vinson’s situation. Some of those buyers are out hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tampa Attorney Craig Rothburd says buyers have a legal case. He says the fraud is caused by the negligence of real estate agents and that the broker’s insurance should cover the loss for the client.
“These things should resolve themselves before litigation, but I think it may take a couple of test cases and the insurance company getting hit and losing the defense before they finally start paying of these types of claims,” Rothburd said.