SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Bay Area home buyers are being targeted by an alarming and sophisticated email scam that can wipe out a victim’s life savings in an instant.
In one case, a woman lost $500,000.
KPIX 5 has learned the scam is succeeding in the Bay Area because home prices are high, properties are scarce and people are trying to close deals quickly to beat out the competition.
Like most realtors, Kristina Solovieva frequently communicates with clients via email.
But last year, unknown to her, criminals hacked her Gmail account and monitored the correspondence between her and her clients.
The scammers then waited for the perfect time to strike.
“The timing was impeccable, actually,” said Solovieva. “It was time to send the remainder of the down payment to close escrow.”
Using Solovieva’s email account, the hackers sent a message to one of her clients, telling them to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to a fraudulent account.
And this was not an isolated case.
Lawyer Matt Borden’s is suing a different real estate company on behalf of his client who lost $500,000 due to a similar fraudulent email from her realtor’s account.
“She was crushed. This was her life savings,” said Borden.
The National Association of Realtors and the FBI have issued warnings about these sophisticated email scams targeting the real estate industry.
Matt Fuller of the San Francisco Association of Realtors warns that realtors aren’t the only ones being hacked.
“It can be the agent’s email, it can be the title company, it can be a lender, it can be a transaction coordinator,” explained Fuller. “It’s a nationwide phenomenon, unfortunately.”
He says the hackers aim to impersonate someone involved in the real estate transaction by sending emails from the party’s account, instructing buyers to wire money right when the buyer is expecting to make a payment.
“They’d been watching us all along and reading all of our correspondence,” said Solovieva.
Luckily, her clients questioned the fake email after being tipped off by the fact the amount requested was slightly off.
They called me asking, ‘How did you come up with this amount?'” explained Solovieva.
Realtors like Solovieva are now hoping the warnings about wire fraud don’t get lost among the reams real estate paperwork and email overload their clients face.
The National Association of Realtors and the FBI advise everyone in the real estate market to verify any instructions they receive via email, either in person or on the phone
Consumers are also advised to never wire money unless positive the instructions came from a reliable source.