BROOKLINE, NH (CBS) – After years of searching, the picturesque property in Hillsborough, New Hampshire was a dream for Paul LeBlanc and his family.
Access to the water. A sandy beach where the kids could play. The lakefront home seemed like the perfect fit.
“It was the one we were waiting for,” LeBlanc recalled.
Within days, the Brookline, New Hampshire resident’s offer was accepted by the seller. The coveted view of the water was almost a reality.
However, little did LeBlanc know, a hacker had infiltrated the email chain about the home purchase. While posing as representatives from the lending bank and the title company, the hacker extracted key information about the financing and even the exact date and time of the closing.
“It was a scary level of detail,” LeBlanc told the WBZ-TV I-Team.
A few days before close, LeBlanc received a fraudulent email from what he thought was the title company. The message instructed him to wire the $142,245 down payment to a JPMorgan Chase bank account.
LeBlanc traveled to his Bank of America branch in Groton, Mass. and filled out the needed paperwork for the wire transaction. He thought it was a done deal.
The next day, LeBlanc received another fraudulent email, confirming the wire had been received.
“See you on Friday morning at the closing,” the message said.
But then Friday arrived. With all involved parties sitting around the table, an employee with the title company said the wire still had not arrived.
“Panic would be the first thing that came to my mind,” LeBlanc said. “It was absolutely shocking.”
LeBlanc immediately called his bank to report the fraud and attempt to cancel the transaction. But three days had already elapsed and the money had reached the hacker’s bank account.
LeBlanc wonders how nobody spotted the scam.
“I’ve bought a couple of houses in my lifetime so I’m experienced with doing that,” he said. “But the financial institutions do this all day, every day. And it seems like someone should’ve caught it and known better.”
Before long, LeBlanc received a call from an FBI agent, who said the agency was in the process of “chasing the money” as it traveled to various bank accounts.
Michael Kelly, a supervisory special agent of the FBI’s economic crimes squad in the Boston field office, told the WBZ I-Team the online problem continues to grow.
The scam, referred to as the “Business E-Mail Compromise,” is responsible for more than $3 billion of stolen funds globally. Closer to home, there has been about $30 million in losses the last two years in the four-state area of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Kelly said.
Victims range from deep-pocketed corporations to mom-and-pop small businesses to individual home buyers.
“There really is no person or industry that is immune to this,” Kelly said. “People need to know this scheme exists because if you don’t know, you’re going to fall for it.”
Kelly said the scam can be so tough to detect because hackers will create fake email addresses that appear like the legitimate ones. For instance, switching around the “a” and the “e” in the name Michael.
“It’s very easy to be tricked. If you are looking at that on the phone or very quickly on your computer, your eyes see what your mind expects,” Kelly explained. “This scheme takes advantage of the fact that we are a society that communicates electronically.”
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.
In retrospect, that is exactly what LeBlanc wishes he’d done. After making the wire transfer, he did send an email to confirm the transaction to the involved parties.
But LeBlanc said he never received a response from anyone, a frustrating detail that lead him to file complaints with the New Hampshire Banking Department against the title company, Absolute Title LLC, and the lender, Lake Sunapee Bank.
Emails provided to the WBZ-TV I-Team by Absolute Title manager Matt Neuman show the hackers also set up a fake account purporting to be LeBlanc and communicated with the title company about whether the wire funds had been received.
“I don’t see there is a whole lot we could’ve done differently,” Neuman told WBZ. “Buying a house should be a joyous occasion and what happened here is horrible.”
A Bank of America spokesman told WBZ it could not discuss the case, but said the institution works closely with law enforcement authorities on investigations.
“We conduct wire transfers on behalf of our clients using information they provide to us,” Trevor Koenig said. “It is very unfortunate when individuals are impacted by this type of fraud.”
The FBI says time is crucial in cases of wire transfer fraud. When alerted within three days, the FBI reports a 70 percent success rate of getting the money. That success drops significantly as the cash moves through a network of bank accounts.
In the region, the FBI says it has recovered $12 million of the $30 million stolen from the business email scam.
If you are a victim, Kelly said to immediately contact your bank and submit a complaint through the FBI’s internet complaint system.
LeBlanc and his family remain hopeful federal investigators will somehow track down the $142,000 stolen from them.
But with the lakefront property now back on the market, it seems the dream home will soon be gone for good.
“We were all fooled,” LeBlanc lamented. “The reality is these guys are good. They’re professional and this can happen to a lot of people.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.