BROOKLINE – Paul Leblanc of Brookline thought he had found a dream lakefront home in Hillsborough last fall and was getting ready to close the deal.
Little did he know there were hackers outside the country plotting to rob him blind.
The thieves hacked into an email exchange between Leblanc’s Realtor and title company, ripping off financial information about him.
They then posed as the closing company and emailed him late one Friday afternoon last September instructing him to wire $142,245 to a JPMorgan Chase bank account in Denver. This was the money needed to complete the transaction.
“See you Friday morning at the closing,” a follow-up email sent to Leblanc said, confirming the wire transfer had gone through.
But when Leblanc went to the closing to sign the deal, none of the parties knew about any wire transfer.
“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Leblanc recalled.
This is a common scam the chief executive at Bedford’s Cohen Closing and Title has seen about and heard all too often, and it was even pulled on her established title company by a group of Florida hackers a few months ago.
President Kelly Roosa Cohen said in the 12 years she’s been in the business, she’s seen this stunt ramp up in intensity.
“It started slowly at first some years ago with a few phishing emails,” Cohen said. “It really has picked up the last year. The level of detail and homework they do has just gotten incredible.”
Cohen associate Stacey Breton said U.S. Homeland Security detected someone was impersonating their firm changing their domain name by a single letter to fool their customers.
“This is a super-scary situation. We know what to look for, but the consumer doesn’t,” Cohen said. “It’s typically done within 24 to 48 hours of closing. People are so anxious to buy or sell their house that they will just send the money.”
The scam even has a name in federal law enforcement circles known as the Business E-Mail Compromise.
Federal authorities say it’s responsible for $3 billion of stolen funds globally, and over the last two years it’s robbed home buyers of $30 million in losses in the four-state area of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.
Cohen’s Breton said these hackers can duplicate someone’s email signature to pose as a title or real estate company executive.
“These people are very sophisticated. What they can do with digital email signatures is simply amazing. They can replicate one that looks totally legitimate but is as phony as a three-dollar bill,” Breton said.
Cohen said these hackers also understand the cyclical nature of the real estate market, namely that more deals get done at the end of each month or week.
“They like to reach out at those periods because they know there is greater real estate activity at that time and also that people are more stressed and less likely to be paying close attention,” Cohen said. “They just want to go, go, go, get this done, and that’s when they get scammed.”
The FBI says the silver bullet to stopping the scheme is “voice verification.” On both a business and personal level, that means approaching things the old-fashioned way: picking up the phone to confirm a money transfer or having a face-to-face conversation.
“Let’s not lose the personal touch,” Cohen said. “People have to slow down. You have to read and make sure you are getting a good feel from the company you are dealing with. And do not wire any money unless you have first made a verifying call to our company or the title firm in charge of a transaction.”
Leblanc said he’d even go more retro than that.
“Go old school, absolutely, get a bank check, and bring it to your closing. No one can hack that,” Leblanc said. “It sounds a little backward, but all this is way too much of things going on, why risk it? You have to physically go to the close anyway, so why not be safe and sure.”
For Leblanc’s part, it took more than four months, but he finally got nearly all of his money back.
He credits the FBI with coming up with some of the lost money from the hackers, who were found to be operating outside the U.S.
“They have to split and disperse it very quickly so they can send it overseas,” Leblanc said.
The rest he got with the help of Manchester lawyer Jaime Hage from the title and real estate company because they had used corporate email to transmit personal information about Leblanc.
“The most frustrating thing for me was it took three years to find that property. And the nice lady I was buying it from, she was retiring and moving; she had her own story, she couldn’t wait for me to recover the money,” Leblanc said.
“By the time I was just about made whole, she had already sold the house.”