DURHAM, N.C. — Over the course of seven years, a local couple saved tens of thousands of dollars for a down payment on their first home — then, scammers took their money.
These scammers are so slick and so cunning that it’s hard for home buyers and sellers to realize something is wrong. The growing problem is so common that the Federal Trade Commission recently reissued an alert about the scam. And, with more than $50,000 at stake, a couple of first-time home buyers in Durham want to reinforce the warning.
After months of searching, Cemal and Derya Biryol finally found their dream home, and their excitement grew even more when their offer was accepted and the closing date was set.
Everything seemed perfect until an email came that asked for their $53,000 down payment. The email appeared to come from their closing attorney and included their insurance information and the exact amount due: $53,194.48. Attached wiring instructions even warned about fraud.
Cemal wired the funds and emailed his realtor to be on the lookout for them. The realtor sounded the alarm when she realized the funds went to the wrong bank.
“I almost started crying,” said Cemal. “I felt ashamed, or helpless, because it’s all (Derya’s) savings, together it’s all our savings, and I just sent it to someone else in a matter of seconds.”
“You just think, oh my gosh, so much money, and it’s just gone,” said Derya.
Hackers target buyers, sellers, agents and attorneys in different scenarios. Often, they break into a broker’s email, gather sensitive and accurate information about a transaction, and then clone the email address. As the closing date nears, they email the buyer new wiring instructions.
“I was pleading with my bank,” said Cemal. “I lost myself for a moment — I was asking these people, saying I lost my life savings, please help me. Please, this is a scam, please. The bank said it was already past the half-hour limit, so they could not stop the transaction.”
The bank did flag the funds as fraudulent and try to recall the wire, and Detective Ben Garth with the Durham Police Department’s financial crimes unit jumped on the case.
“Once it’s gone, it’s usually gone,” said Garth, but then he discovered that the Biryol’s money landed in a busy account. “Another $120,000 fraudulent wire came into the same account,” said Garth.
Ultimately, because of all the quick action involved, and because they sent the payment on a Friday afternoon, the Biryols lucked out.
“The wire operations end at the end of the day on Friday and start again on Monday, so nobody was able to touch the funds in that account after we wired the money,” said Cemal.
Even after the Biryols froze the funds, it still took two more weeks for the bank to release the funds back to them. “Right at that moment I saw that money and I felt relief,” said Cemal.
After a delayed closing, these first-time home buyers are hoping others hear their warning about how fortunate they feel to also be first-time scam survivors.
“It’s easy money for them, but it’s just cruel,” said Derya. “We got lucky,” Cemal agreed.
Officials say the best way to protect yourself from a similar scam is to verify all details of a real estate transaction by phone before you send anything. The phone numbers you use need to be legitimate, not numbers you receive in a suspicious email.
Even better? Make the exchange in person.
WRAL news: Reporter Monica Laliberte