Record number of victims falling for ‘spear phishing’

October 03, 2018

HOUSTON - Spear phishing: It’s when thieves pose as title companies via email, tricking homebuyers into wiring money straight to them.

In fact, over a three-year period, the FBI says this May proved to be a record month for the number of people fell victim to real estate scams.

We first told you about the scam last month. since then, more victims are reaching out to us, saying they lost money too. One of those victims was Ryan Winters.

He said that he’s a first time homebuyer and was within two weeks of closing on a home in Humble when he received an email.

“(It said) that I needed to wire transfer the money into the escrow account which was $28,600 plus,” said Winters. “It was pretty much close to the actual closing cost would be, so I said, ‘OK not a problem.’”

The email had his title company’s name and logo. It had the escrow officer’s picture with her name beside it.  There were even wiring instructions that followed.

So Winters wired the money, only to hear from his Realtor moments later.

“She called me back and was like ‘it’s fraud, run back into the bank,’” said Winters. “Cancel! Try and get it stopped.”

With multiple emails that looked like the real deal, Winters says he had become a victim of what’s called a spear phishing scam. That’s where scammers can pose as anyone in the home buyer’s transaction like a Realtor or escrow officer and steal down payments.

“It’s just panic,” Winters said. “I was probably stuttering on the phone. I ran back into the bank.”

Looking back now, Winters realizes that scammers spoofed emails to look like it came from his escrow officer.

For example, in the “from” line it had his escrow officer’s full name.

It’s only when you when you clicked on the name that a different email address appeared.

The final kick in the gut for Winters was receiving an email from the scammers, thanking Winters for wiring the money.

Despite Ryan’s quick actions, he says he could not stop the wire transfer.

He says he’s filed reports with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.

And, he says he has placed numerous calls to the bank where the money was wired, but he could not get that account frozen. Winters said he does not know if he’ll get his money back.

Without a down payment, Winters’ dream home may be out of reach.

“It is heart crushing, every day, it’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning,” he said.

The FBI has this advice for potential homebuyers.

Phishing/spoofing

  • Be suspicious of any unsolicited email requesting personal information.
  • Avoid filling out forms in email messages that ask for personal information.
  • Always compare the link in the email to the link that you are actually directed to.
  • Log on to the official website, instead of “linking” to it from an unsolicited email.
  • Contact the actual business that supposedly sent the email to verify if the email is genuine.

If you are a victim of spear phishing, you can also file a report with the FBI.