A scammer conned us out of our $32,430 down payment by email. We didn’t realize it until 10 days later.

Daniel Pietschnig and Jessica Madalena fell victim to a scammer who swindled them out of a $32,430 down payment.

Daniel Pietschnig and Jessica Madalena thought they were emailing their real-estate agent.But it was really a scammer who had been sending the couple messages for weeks.The scammer convinced them to wire their $32,430 down payment to a fake bank account and vanished. 

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Daniel Pietschnig, 32, and Jessica Madalena, 31, who lost a $32,430 home down payment to a scammer in 2022. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel: We live in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey. Compared to other major cities in the state like Jersey City and Newark, it is a smaller area.

Jessica grew up in Wood-Ridge; her mother and grandfather grew up here, too. Since her family is from the town, it was somewhere we wanted to start our lives together.

There’s not a lot of availability here. Whenever a home goes on the market, it gets scooped up right away and for over the asking price.

When we found our house, we thought we were pretty lucky. It has a lot of potential and was almost move-in ready: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and very well-kept.

We closed on the house in November 2022 and were under contract in September. That month, we were supposed to pay our down payment.

We had been saving up for a little under a year. Before Jessica and I lived together, I had my own home and sold it, making a little bit of profit from the sale. I used a combination of that money, along with what we had been saving, for the down payment.

Jessica: It all happened in about 10 days. On September 9, we wired $32,430 to who we thought was the home seller’s attorney. We didn’t realize until our actual down payment due date of September 19 that we had been scammed.

They seemed to hack our real-estate agent’s email

Daniel: The scam happened over the course of a couple of weeks. It was surreal.

We had been working with a real-estate agent who was a family friend of Jessica’s. Her parents had used her for a couple of transactions, so she was trusted.

Somehow a hacker got into her email account, and then was able to get all of our transaction information.

Through email, they made up a fake story and convinced Jessica and me to send our down payment to the bank account of the “seller’s attorney” instead of dropping it off at the real attorney’s office.

I thought it was a little bit weird, but I didn’t really think much of it. We thought we were talking to our attorney, the seller’s attorney, and our real-estate agent.

For a few weeks, we thought everything was okay. But we got a call from our real attorney, and they said, “Hey, your down payment is due today.” I was like, “What are you talking about? We sent it two weeks ago.”

I called the seller’s attorney, and he explained that the email account was not his, and the bank account wasn’t either. I was in shock and my heart dropped.

It turns out, the scammer spoofed our attorney’s email address by changing one or two of the letters to make it seem real. They even took a signature from a previous email he had sent us to make his look like they were legitimately from him.

We found out the only real email address in the thread was our real-estate agent’s, but she wasn’t the one communicating with us. She told us via text message that her email account must have been hacked — that it was her email address, but she didn’t write it.

Editor’s note: The real-estate agent referred BI to the owner of her brokerage for comment. He said that he has “no firm evidence we were hacked,” that wire fraud is an issue for everyone in the real-estate industry, and that this is the only instance he can recall where scammers succeeded in taking money from homebuyers.

We’ll never recover our lost money

Daniel: After discovering the scam, the first person I called was Jessica.

It was me who had sent the money, and I felt like I let everyone down. I was overwhelmed with guilt because I didn’t know if we could still get the house.

Jessica: When I found out, I was so emotional, I just started bawling. I felt like everything we had worked for had been ripped away from us. I also felt violated, thinking about what else they could do with our Social Security and bank account information.

Daniel: After talking to Jessica, I called my bank to explain what happened. They said they would try to contact the bank where the money was deposited, but there’s no guarantee that after two weeks they’d be able to recover any of our money.

We contacted the FBI, who told us to speak with our local prosecutor’s office. I reached out to them and they suggested filing a police report.

A detective who investigated our case told us that our money was transferred to an overseas account and turned into Bitcoin.

At this point, we’re realistic that we probably won’t recover any of our money.

Homebuyers should be more aware of real-estate scams

Daniel: Throughout this ordeal, we learned that scammers often succeed by creating a sense of urgency. They also tend to strike on Fridays, knowing that financial institutions close for the weekend. By the time banks open on Mondays, your money is already gone.

From my experience, I would advise that if you receive an email or text that seems to be from your agent, attorney, mortgage company, or anyone involved in the transaction, always verify by calling them. That’s where you could save a lot of headache and heartbreak.

Of course, what happened to us is not my favorite thing to think about, but the more we talk about it, the more we can raise awareness about these types of scams.

With the help of family, the couple was still able to move into the home.

One of the first things I told Jessica when the scam happened was, ‘No matter what, we’re getting this home. This is where we start our lives.’

In the end, we do consider ourselves winners because we did exactly that.

The home was listed for $562,900, and we paid $540,000 for it. We were fortunate to receive help from our family for the down payment. They gave us $25,000, and we paid the remainder of the $32,430 down payment from our savings.

Despite what happened, it truly does feel like our home.

Jessica is a talented interior designer, and together we’ve made subtle cosmetic improvements. Her stepdad was here almost every day helping us paint, and my dad assisted with the electrical work. It was a real team effort with our family.

Right now, we’re focused on moving forward and celebrating — we’re even getting married in August.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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