Down payment deception: Scam depletes home buyers of life savings

News

GREENVILLE COUNTY, SC (WSPA) – A chilling scam hit close to home for us here at 7News. 

One of our newsroom staff members was targeted in a ploy so deceptive that it can drain you of your life’s savings in a flash.

Hackers, targeting home buyers, are making off with their down payments.

Many have lost thousands, tens of thousands and even millions.

The real estate scam is so sophisticated it’s virtually impossible to detect.

When Brittany Vollmer moved to the Upstate to produce “7News Live at 5,” from behind the camera she never imagined she would soon be on-camera with one of the most alarming scam stories we have ever told.

“I’ve been a producer for 10 years and I know this stuff happens and it can happen, and I just didn’t see the red flags,” she said. 

No one did — not her realtor’s office and not her real estate attorney’s firm.

After a three month search, Vollmer and her fiance had found their dream home.

“We knew that this is where we wanted to be, we were so excited. We both just fell in love with the house,” Vollmer said.

A week before closing, she got an email that appeared to be from the Greenville law firm of Nelson & Galbreath who would be representing her in the purchase.

“They had told me they needed it 48 hours prior. She sent me over a form. It was on their letterhead,” Vollmer said. “It had the amount, it had the address, it had my bank information, it had the letterhead, it had everything. So I thought it was real.”

But the emailed document was a scam — a near perfect recreation of the document with the actual wiring instructions that the law firm sends out.  

The real one that arrived one day after Vollmer reported the scam to the law firm had a warning not to wire transfer funds to unknown parties.

“They had everything down to the penny,” she said. “It had the exact amount that I was supposed to be sending for a down payment on the house.” 

The amount: $102,071.90.     

Vollmer followed the instructions and wired the full amount, and then called the law office to make sure it had been received.

“They transferred me to Katie Eisler, who I thought I was talking to, and she answered the phone and said ‘I haven’t emailed you once,'” Vollmer said.

“My heart just dropped,” she said. “I hung up the phone and immediately called Bank of America and told them that I needed to put a stop on a wire transfer.”

But it wasn’t that easy.

The funds had already been transferred to a different bank. That bank told her she could potentially be the scammer, so they couldn’t help her.

“After 2 hours of being on hold with the bank and no one would help me, they sent me to an email address that bounced back to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to my 7News co-workers just to help me and point me in the right direction,” Vollmer said.

Her next step was to reach out to the FBI.  

The agency said during the last fiscal year victims lost, or nearly lost, about $1 billion to this down payment theft.  

That figure is up explosively from 2016 where home buyers reported just $19 million in the wire transfer frauds.

We talked to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jim Abbott about how home buyers can avoid this scam.

“The red flags are definitely harder to find, but it starts with looking to see where that email came from. Whether you right click or hover over the senders address to see, is it actually coming from the name or the person who I believe it to be.”

The only hope a wire transfer victim has in stopping that money from leaving the country is to call the FBI within 72 hours.

The sooner you do, the more likely the agency can issue what’s called a “Financial Fraud Kill Chain.” 

Vollmer called the agency within hours of sending the money.

Her fraud case is still under investigation by the FBI, who is trying to determine where the breach occurred.  

Neither her realtor Keller Williams Greenville Central nor the law firm of Nelson Galbreath would agree to be interviewed for this story.

But the National Association of Realtors said all aspects of the housing market have become big targets for this type of fraud, and it’s getting worse.  

“The wire fraud scams are happening. They’re becoming more prevalent. They’re not showing any signs of stopping, so any buyer in the marketplace ready to make a real estate transaction needs to know about this scam and know how to protect themselves from being the next victim,” Leslie Muchow, the VP, Deputy General Council with the NAR, said.

Five days after the initial discovery, Vollmer still didn’t know whether she would be able to close on her dream house, and no one seemed certain that her down payment could be recovered.

But that initial call to the FBI, made in those early hours after the scam, finally paid off.

“I got the email that the funds were returned and I immediately logged into my account to make sure that the funds were there, and they were. And it was just the best feeling,” Vollmer said. “We’ve moved into the house, everything’s fine. It all worked out in the end, but yeah, I’m pinching myself because it felt like a nightmare that I wouldn’t wake up from, but I did.”

It’s an ending that’s all the more sweet because that money was given to Vollmer by her grandmother when she passed away.

The FBI confirmed that many victims who wire money never get it back.

To report this scam you can call your local FBI office or file a complaint at www.IC3.gov.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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