Aaron and Lindsey Fisher found their dream home not far from where they lived in Northern California.
It was a stunning $ 1.4 million home with a sprawling back yard and a nearby trail that they could hike with their four sons.
“It seemed too good to be almost true,” said Lindsey. “Exactly what we wanted.”
Aaron and Lindsey Fisher and their four sons.
And thanks to a family inheritance, they could afford it.
But suddenly everything went wrong.
Aaron, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, deposited $ 921,235.10 from his Bank of America account, a number he still cannot forget to this day.
Two days later the mortgage lender called and asked for the transfer. The company asked where the money was being sent and Aaron nervously said, “Wells Fargo.”
He was stunned when the agent said, “Aaron, we don’t have a Wells Fargo account. You need to call your bank immediately.”
Aaron called his wife. “We were robbed,” he said to her.
Aaron and Lindsey Fisher
The couple was hit by a so-called real estate wire fraud, an increasingly common crime. According to the FBI, consumers have lost more than $ 220 million in such programs to date in 2020, a 13% increase over the same period last year.
“Suddenly everything felt threatening,” said Aaron.
According to CNBC, here’s what we learned about the fisherman’s fraud: The home buyer had an email conversation with his real estate agent and legitimate representatives of the title firm. Hackers somehow inserted themselves into the conversation, using email addresses designed to look like one or more of the participants in the business.
Scammers are conducting legitimate talks to convince homebuyers to send payments to the wrong account.
“We all thought we were communicating, and every time we sent an email we were communicating with the criminals,” said Aaron.
Documents compiled by the fishermen show that the scammers emailed digital copies of the actual closing documents and transfer instructions that looked real from the fake email account
“Those were the actual closing documents. So I opened the PDF. I checked them. All the numbers were correct,” said Aaron.
However, the attached wiring instructions contained the incorrect account information.
“Somehow, the scammers got the real closing papers. And that gave them some comfort that this was a real email,” said Paul Llewellyn, an attorney who represented the fishermen.
The fishermen contacted the FBI, which assigned an agent to the case.
The FBI says this type of real estate cable scam has been around for years, but now criminals are targeting high-end markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Palm Beach, as well as expensive homes.
“You could lose tens of millions of dollars on one sale in certain markets,” said Steven Merrill, FBI director of financial crimes. “The one [markets] The most lucrative are those who they are likely to target. “
The fishermen’s money was transferred to a real account number, but the account name in the fraudulent wiring instructions at Schlossberg & Associate, LLC. Seems to have been made up.
The fishermen thought they were sending money to their title company, but the payment was actually diverted to the wrong account.
Neither Bank of America nor Wells Fargo checked this prior to processing the transfer as there is no federal law that requires it to do so.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., Has urged the Federal Reserve to add protections for home buyers.
“They don’t want to solve the problem because they have a computer system that needs to be modified. But it’s worth it,” said Sherman.
In June, the congressman tabled a bill, the Internet Fraud Prevent Act, to address the problem.
“This legislation, which would, among other things, require the Federal Reserve to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the nature of the remittance name matching mechanism being implemented in UK regulators, believes this change is this type of fraud will reduce it by at least 90 percent, “Rep. Sherman said in part in a statement emailed to CNBC.
Wells Fargo declined to disclose information about the account that fraudulently received the Fishers’ $ 921,235.10.
“We cannot discuss any information about our customers or their accounts for privacy reasons,” Stacy Kika, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Kika also said, “If a customer feels they are a victim of fraud, we encourage them to contact their bank immediately and file a lawsuit. At Wells Fargo, we take steps to investigate the claim if we have one Received customer fraud lawsuit. ” Report our results directly to the customer. We do not publicly discuss our anti-fraud strategies. “
The money that Aaron Fisher transferred to what he believed to be a mortgage company ended up being diverted to China worldwide, according to a source close to the case.
The FBI says that money lost in such crimes often ends up in China, where it is usually lost forever.
“They stole a lot of financial security from us. They stole a future that could have been, a future that included a house we would live in, a future that could include more financial security for our children and the ability to To cut our college bills and not burden our kids with debt, they stole it all, “said Aaron.
But then everything took an unexpected turn.
Two weeks after the couple thought they’d lost all the money and their dream home, Aaron received a call from Bank of America.
Incredibly, the bank got all of its money back.
“I’m still nervous,” said Aaron days after the call. “We don’t know why the bank gave it back to us.”
The fishermen checked that all the money had been returned, closed their account with Bank of America, and opened a new one with another bank.
It turned out that the house the fishermen wanted was still for sale and the second time they tried to buy it they used a certified check upon closing.
The fishing family’s dream home in Petaluma, CA.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said Lindsey. “I don’t think it will feel real until we have the keys to the house and move in.”
William Halldin, a spokesman for Bank of America, told CNBC the bank had taken action quickly and was able to return the full amount of the fishermen’s money to its account.
Halldin said, “As soon as a customer tells us that they have authorized a transaction that turns out to be fraudulent, we take immediate action to recover the money and assist our customers.” The bank is “pleased that we were able to fully reimburse this customer thanks to our swift action.”
He declined to discuss details of how the bank could return the money.
Aaron Fisher when he finally closed his dream home. This time with an old-fashioned check instead of a wire.
Scott Zamost | CNBC
Most victims are not so lucky and never get their money back. But the fisherman’s story has a happy ending. The old school check they used when they closed has been cleared and the couple now live in their new home.
In order not to become a victim, experts should carefully examine emails to ensure that the sender’s address is correct. Scammers often change a letter so pay close attention.
Also, watch out for last minute changes to wiring instructions, which can be a big red flag.
You should also be on the phone with someone you trust and whom you have spoken to previously over the phone, e.g. B. the real estate agent, attorney, or mortgage broker to confirm all wiring instructions before sending a dime.
Do not transfer money until you are sure the information is correct.