‘I couldn’t believe it happened to me’: Homebuyer loses life savings to hacking scam

OCALA, Fla. — A devastating cybercrime that targets homebuyers and sellers just cost a local woman more than $120,000.

It’s a crime Action 9 first exposed four years ago and it’s exploded since COVID-19 since most home sale transactions must be done online.

One day Jeannine Fontaine wired money to buy her retirement home. The next day her entire life savings had disappeared.

“It was a shock. I couldn’t believe it happened. I couldn’t believe it happened to me,” Fontaine said.

She found a home to buy near Ocala. Fontaine used Ellison Realty to write the contract and Ocala Land Title Insurance for the closing.

READ: Floridians under 65 should be able to get COVID-19 vaccine next month, DeSantis says

The day before buying the home, Fontaine got an email from her realtor, or so she thought, with specific instructions to wire $122,000 to the bank so the title company could close the deal.

“Everything was very professional, and it had the realtor’s email account and the attachment wiring instructions, it looked perfect,” Fontaine said.

In a sheriff’s office report, Fontaine told deputies the wiring instructions were fraudulent and she had sent money to scammers.

“I haven’t slept much since. Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” Fontaine said.

The home-hacking scam targets home sales posted online. Scammers search real estate listing sites like Zillow to find a sale, then they’ll hack into emails from realtors, title companies, homebuyers and sellers. After gathering insider information, they’ll send spoof emails with phony wiring instructions to steal money the moment a house sells.

“They knew where the house was, they knew the amount, they knew everything,” Belinda Kitchen said.

She contacted Action 9 after cybercrooks posed as real title company employees by email to steal $10,000.

READ: Consumers grow frustrated with Expedia over COVID-19 refunds

The scheme has been a growing threat. According to the FBI, in Florida alone home hackers stole $29,000,000 in 2016, and $96,000,000 in 2019, and the losses since COVID-19 could be far worse.

“The fraudsters are out there like there’s no tomorrow,” said real estate attorney Barry Miller.

Miller says COVID-19 forced more virtual online closings, giving scammers more targets. He says many times the phony emails suggest there were last-minute changes at closing.

“I know you got wiring instructions from the title company, but they just changed banks so here’s the new ones,” Miller said.

Action 9′s Todd Ulrich contacted Fontaine’s real estate and title companies. Ocala Land Title said it told Fontaine to contact her bank the same day, and a manager said the company’s emails had not been compromised.

Fontaine says she hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit against her bank for not questioning the wire transfer.

“They’ve taken away pretty much what I was going to do the rest of my life,” Fontaine said.

Consumer experts say victims should tell their bank to recall a wire transfer the same day.

Victims should contact their local FBI field office. The agency says if notified within 24 hours, it can freeze most phony back accounts.

Todd Ulrich

Todd Ulrich, WFTV.com

I am WFTV's Action 9 Reporter.