Nothing seemed amiss when Aaron Cole, 30, received an email with instructions for wiring the $122,850 downpayment for his new home. So the husband and father of two young children followed those instructions — only 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. This was my one chance. In one fell swoop I just ruined everything good I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
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 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: This week his title company, WFG National Title and Insurance Company, hired him as a spokesperson to discuss cyber security. He’ll talk about his own experiences with scammers, and the new year-long gig will pay the same amount he lost — meaning the family should still get to move into their new home.
Cole’s experience getting scammed began on Dec. 3, when he received the email. He told Inman Wednesday that the 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. A woman at the title company was on the line, and wanted to give him instructions. Cole, confused, said he had already sent the money.
“Then she tells me, ‘that’s not us,'” Cole recounted. “I said, ‘you’re kidding me right?'”
The woman at the title company wasn’t kidding, however, and the money was gone. Cole said he immediately went to the bank, confirmed what had happened, then broke down in his car.
“You just sit there and you’re empty and you don’t know what to do,” Cole said. “After beating the crap out of my steering wheel for a second I had to go tell my wife.”
The news was equally devastating to Cole’s wife, Sarah.
“I tell her and first she gives me the, ‘you’re kidding right?'” Cole said. “And then she just fell into a pile on the floor.”
Cole said his wife was emotionally devastated for days. The family had already sold their previous home, and couldn’t remain there, and eventually the couple’s 5-year-old son began having nightmares about where the family would live.
“I just told them some bad men took our money and we’re not going to get our house and I don’t know where we’re going to live because this isn’t our house anymore either,” Cole recalled telling his kids.
Bruce Phillips, WFG’s senior vice president and chief security officer, told Inman Wednesday that Cole’s experience is extremely common and a growing problem. In 2016, for example, Americans lost $360 million to wire fraud, he said. That number jumped to $675 million in 2017, and will be “in excess of a billion dollars” for 2018. And though high-profile incidents, often targeting companies, might make the news, Phillips said the average loss is actually $135,000 — close to the amount that Cole lost.
“We see hundreds of these every month,” Phillips said.
A recent report revealed that scammers target real estate transactions because they involve large amounts of money and take place digitally. The report also found that real estate companies are major targets of cyber crime, and that phishing is one of scammers’ principle weapons.
Phillips said that in the past scammers targeted escrow companies, and victims had days to catch perpetrators. 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 much more 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. The investigation is ongoing, but doesn’t look good.
“I have very little faith that there will be anything left at all,” Cole said.
Faced with few other options, Cole took his story to local media, where he was critical of the various companies involved in the wire transfer and suggested there should be changes to the industry. Friends and family also contributed to a GoFundMe campaign, which as of Wednesday night had raised $16,000 of a $150,000 goal.
The story could have ended there — Phillips said others have — with a family losing their cash and their home in the days leading up to Christmas.
However, this week WFG came up with the solution of hiring Cole as a spokesman. Justin Tucker, chief marketing officer of WEST, a subsidiary of WFG, told Inman the 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, Tucker said, is to help other people understand cyber crime on an emotional level.
And the position — which won’t involve Cole leaving his day job — will pay the same amount that he lost.
“We’re making Aaron whole so he can make this transaction,” Tucker said, referring to the close of the family’s new home. “It’s looking like it’ll close this Friday.”
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.” And, asked about the fact that his family will still make it into their new home, he said he was still trying to take it all in.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I still can’t really wrap my head around it.”