Better Call Behnken: Florida buyers out hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate wiring scam

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida buyers have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in home down payments, all because they followed what they thought was their real estate agent’s wiring instructions.

Instead, the money went to crooks, typically in another country. The FBI investigates, but it is rare that cash is ever returned to the home buyer.

It’s a sophisticated scam the FBI and realtor groups have warned agents about for two years, but the crime is on the rise. Agents are told to use encrypted email for wiring instructions and to use a secure email. But, many ignore this advice and buyers keep losing money.

The most recent Tampa Bay area case called to the attention of 8 On Your Side was Sean Vinson and his girlfriend. They are settling into their new Clearwater condo.

But, the couple are out their $10,000 down payment and had to scramble to get family to help them come up with a second down payment.

“This was supposed to be my first home, supposed to be a great experience, and what happened is just awful,” Vison said.

State Representative Kathleen Peters, (R) Treasure Island, wants agents to do a better job of protecting clients. After she heard Vinson’s story, she called colleagues and is looking into drafting legislation to give consumers protection.

“I believe they should stand up and protect their clients,” Peters said. “I think they need to provide security, some kind of assurance to people when they have contracts with clients that there’s some kind of teeth in those contracts.”

David Bennett, President and CEO of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said he knows of about 100 down payment hacking cases in Florida. He said his group, along with the National Association of Realtors, recommend their members educate buyers and avoid sending wiring information via email. He also tells agents to use secure email, not free email, such as Yahoo, for sensitive information.

After hearing Vison’s story, he said, he will email his members to remind them again of how to protect themselves and their clients.

Here’s how this scam worked in Vinson’s case.

He and his girlfriend ended up stuck in the situation after they received an email with wiring instructions. It turns out, a crook hacked into their real estate agent’s Yahoo email and got their information.

Then, from an email that looked like the one from the title agent, the crook sent an email to the agent, asking for more information about Vinson. The agent, Inessa Kosonen, of Luxury & Beach Realty in South Pasadena, replied to the scammer, giving up the information. From there, Vinson received an email from the scammer, posing as Kosonen, giving him fake wiring instructions.

His down payment is gone. He said the FBI tells him it is likely in Kenya. At first, Kosonen’s broker, Julie Simpson, offered to give the buyer’s side of the commission to Vinson to help him recoup funds, even though he wants the full $10,000.

But, after the closing in late April, Vinson said, the realty office went quiet and he has seen no money.

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