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I-Team: Victims Lose Billions Of Dollars Globally From Sophisticated Scheme

BOSTON (CBS) -- Ryan Wood is now enjoying his new basement renovation, but the Bourne homeowner's "dream project" almost fizzled before crews had hammered the first nail.

"It's a very pricey lesson to learn," Wood told the WBZ I-Team.

At the beginning of the year, Wood hired a contractor and began communicating over email about the project design and cost.

Little did Wood know, a hacker had infiltrated the online conversation and was reading every message. When the topic of the down payment came up, the criminal pounced.

"Nothing seemed out of the ordinary," Wood recalled. "It looked as if I was talking with my contractor."

Ryan Woods talks with I-Team's Ryan Kath (WBZ-TV)

Wood offered to send a check for the initial payment of $10,000 to get the project's wheels in motion. The response he received was a request to wire the money to a Bank of America account.

Unaware the money was about to end up in the wrong hands, Wood completed the wire transfer in late January. A short time later, he received a confirmation email the money had been received.

"Looking forward to completing this project for you," the message read. "I will be back on February 14th, so let's plan to meet as soon as I return."

Wood knew his contractor was leaving on vacation, so he figured the transaction was successful and his basement project was closer to becoming a reality.

Ryan Woods talks with I-Team's Ryan Kath in his unfinished basement (WBZ-TV)

However, a couple of weeks later, the contractor showed up at Wood's house, wondering if he still wanted to move forward. The contractor hadn't been able to reach Wood by phone and said he was nervous the homeowner had backed out on the project.

"When he told me he didn't receive the funds, I thought he was joking," Wood recalled. "But when I realized he was serious, I went into total shock. I didn't know what to do or who to call."

Wood frantically started reviewing the email chain and that's when he noticed the subtle clue: At some point in the online conversation, the hacker had started communicating directly with Wood. The messages still appeared to still be coming from the contractor, but a closer inspection of the email address revealed an "I" had been changed to an "L."

"At quick glance, you'd never even know it, especially while reading emails on your smartphone," Wood said.

Ryan Woods reviews emails that were part of an electronic scam with I-Team's Ryan Kath (WBZ-TV)

The Bourne homeowner's tale is just another example of a devastating scam that successfully targets everyone from big businesses to individual homeowners.

The WBZ I-Team previously reported on a New Hampshire couple who lost their $142,000 down payment for a picturesque lakefront property. In that case, the hacker posed as a representative from the title company.

The scheme almost worked in the Town of Brookline, too. In November 2017, a criminal compromised the email address of a town employee who was authorized to initiate wire transfers.

Fortunately, the employee noticed the suspicious message in the sent folder of his government email account. Town leaders immediately notified the FBI and the bank to hold the international wire transfer. The taxpayer funds (town officials declined to say the amount) were eventually returned to Brookline.

"It was a very scary 48 hours," Town Manager Mel Kleckner told the I-Team.

The criminal enterprise, described by the FBI as the "business email compromise," is now responsible for more than $5 billion dollars of stolen money globally.

FBI Special Agent Michael Kelly (WBZ-TV)

"We are seeing these every day. It is the scheme we see more frequently than anything else," said Michael Kelly, a supervisory special agent of the FBI's economic crimes squad in the Boston field office.

Kelly said the scam is so successful because it takes advantage of how people conduct the majority of their business electronically. The good news is there is a simple step to avoid losing large sums of money.

"I've seen over 1,100 of these cases and I haven't seen one that would be successful if someone picked up the phone or walked across the hall and had a face-to-face conversation before they sent the money," Kelly told the I-Team.

The FBI provides a number of tips for businesses and consumers about how to spot and avoid the scheme, along with how to report an incident.

Timing is critical when it comes to recovering money. Kelly said it is essential that victims contact their bank and the FBI immediately. After five days, the chances of getting the money back decreases considerably because criminals will quickly distribute the funds throughout a money mule network."

Several weeks passed before Woods detected his fraudulent wire transfer, so the Bourne homeowner has slowly come to grips with the fact he won't recoup the $10,000 loss.

"It's going to take me a long time to get past this. That's no small chunk of change," he said. "It's very easy to become a victim. Be very careful about where you're sending money."

Ryan Kath can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.  

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