TitleBytes News & Happenings

Homebuyer, Scammed Out of Fortune, Hired by Title Company

Jan 29, 2019

Aaron Cole lost his entire down payment to scammers, but a deal with his title company allowed him and his family to move into their new home just in time for Christmas.

Nothing seemed amiss when Aaron Cole, 30, received an email with instructions to wire the
$122,850 down payment for his new home. So the husband and father of two young children followed those instructions — finding out days later that he had been fooled into sending all of his money to scammers. “Now we lose this house,” Cole recalled thinking, “That’s gone. All the money’s gone. In one fell swoop I just ruined everything good I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

Cole’s experience getting scammed began on Dec. 3, when he received the email. That email address included his title company’s name, and “everything looked identical to an untrained eye like mine.” He had been expecting wire transfer instructions, so the next day he asked his wife to go send the money. But six days later Cole was driving down the street when he got a call from a woman at the title company who wanted to give him instructions. Cole, confused, said he had already sent the money. “I said, ‘you’re kidding me right?’” She wasn’t.

The experience was devastating to Cole, a resident of Oregon City, Oregon, who works in a machine shop and said that, aside from the days after selling his previous home, which he had renovated for 6 years, his “accounts never had five figures in them, let alone six.” It also highlights a growing trend in which scammers target homebuyers and sellers, bilking them out of fortunes and leaving them with nowhere to live.

But in Cole’s case, the tale also has a rare, happy twist. His title company, WFG National Title Insurance Company, has hired him as a spokesperson to help spread the word regarding cyber security. He’ll talk about his own experience with scammers, and this new year-long gig — which won’t involve Cole leaving his day job — will pay the same amount that he lost, meaning the family still moved into their new home before Christmas – an unexpected happy ending.

Cole’s experience is unfortunately all too common and a growing problem. In 2016, for example, Americans lost $360 million to wire fraud. That number jumped to $675 million in 2017, and exceeded a billion dollars for 2018. While high-profile incidents, often targeting companies, might make the news, the average loss from such individual scams is actually $135,000 — close to the amount that Cole lost. “We see hundreds of these every month,” says Bruce Phillips, WFG’s Senior Vice President and Chief Security Officer.

A recent report revealed that scammers target real estate transactions because they involve large amounts of money and take place digitally. It also found that real estate companies are major targets of cybercrime, and that phishing is one of scammers’ principle weapons. Phillips said that in the past scammers targeted escrow and title companies. Today, however, many thieves prefer to go after buyers and sellers, using phishing schemes to spoof email addresses or other information. And the scams move quickly. “Today you literally have minutes to be able to retrieve the funds,” he added. In Cole’s case, the funds appear to be lost. He went to law enforcement, who tracked the money through several bank accounts before it moved overseas.

Cole’s new gig will involve speaking at a summit, appearing in a video, and providing other commentary on what it’s like to become the victim of a cyber scam. The idea is to help other people understand cybercrime on an emotional level. “They warned we’re never going to send an email with wiring instructions, it’ll be an encrypted email. We’ll call you with wire instructions, putting out all the red flags …” But, as Cole related, “I was looking at it more like the terms of use when you want to download an app and you just skip through the thing and you click accept.” Now the wiser, Cole expressed optimism about his partnership with WFG and said that he was looking forward to sharing with people what can happen “if you just don’t take a second to check every single thing …” It could cost you!

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