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Scammers Stealing Down Payments By Hacking Real Estate Agents' Email Accounts

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Buying a home is the biggest purchase most Americans will make during their lifetime. But now hackers have figured out how to steal the down payment, leaving the buyer without a new home and often wiping out their life savings.

"The timing was impeccable, actually," said Kristina Soloviena, a real estate agent.

Like most realtors, Soloviena emails clients all day long.

However, a year ago, unknown to her, criminals hacked her Gmail account, monitored the correspondence between her and her clients, and waited for the perfect time to strike.

"It was time to send the remainder of the down payment to close escrow," Soloviena said.

Using Soloviena's email account, the hackers sent a message to one of her clients telling them to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to a fraudulent account.

"It's creepy being watched and knowing they've been reading all of our emails," Soloviena said.

The National Association of Realtors and the FBI are now issuing warnings about "sophisticated email scams targeting the real estate industry."

"It's a nationwide phenomena, unfortunately," said Matt Fuller with the San Francisco Association of Realtors.

Fuller warns realtors aren't the only ones being hacked.

"It can be the agent's email. It can be the title company. It can be a lender. It can be a transaction coordinator," he said.

The hackers' goal, he says, is to impersonate someone involved in the real estate transaction by sending emails from their account, instructing buyers to wire money. The criminals usually do it just when the buyer is expecting to make a payment.

"They'd been watching us all along, and reading all of our correspondence," Soloviena said.

Lucky for Soloviena's clients, they questioned the fake email. The amount requested was off by just a bit.

The Realtors Association and the FBI advise everyone buying or "trying" to buy real estate to verify any instructions they receive in an email, and never wire money unless they're positive the instructions came from a reliable source.

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