SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio woman lost more than $36,000 this fall after scammers used an elaborate email spoofing technique called 'spear phishing' to convince her to wire the down payment and closing costs for a home to a different bank account.
Jamie Leeper, a first-time homebuyer, discovered the criminal activity while doing the final walkthrough for a recently-purchased garden home on the northwest side.
"I overheard them say 'Wells Fargo account' and I interjected and I said 'No, you told me to send it to Bank of America.' And they said 'No, it was Wells Fargo,'" said Leeper.
A closer inspection of emails leading up to closing on the home revealed that the email addresses of Leeper's loan officer and realtor had been spoofed.
The domain names of both addresses had been moved and replaced with the domain name "dr."
"Except for the 'dr.com' everything looked exactly the same," said Leeper, who added that the email chain leading up to closing on the home remained intact.
Leeper said she had to dip into auxiliary savings to cover the down payment.
"They'll go to great lengths to emulate the look of that title company's email account and their webpage," said FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee.
"They may sit there and just kind of wait and look at the email transactions."
Lee said that "phishing" involves individuals getting information from other people and that "spear phishing" is a focused phishing effort usually aimed at a particular company or organization that has something a criminal is interested in acquiring.
Lee said that many financial institutions now delay sending money overseas.
She recommended that people conducting financial transactions online should use domain-based email, encrypted communications and two-step verification, which requires users to use a password and ever-changing code to access an account.
Leeper said banks should offer spear-phishing protection and now wishes she had verified transaction information for the wire transfer over the phone instead of via email.
She said that banks should approach wire transfers like debit card purchases, which can often be reversed if fraudulent activity is discovered.
"There has to be some kind of process in place from bank to bank," Leeper said.