WASHINGTON -- Mike Malone, who owns a construction company in upstate New York, was ready to buy a vacation condominium in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Last month, he received an email from someone he thought was his broker, instructing him to transfer almost $500,000 to an account at Bank of America.
"My wife went to the bank that day, completed the wire transfer and called me and said, 'The wire transfer is done, you might want to call and check on that,'" Malone said.
But when his broker told him she had never sent an email, he realized his vacation home deal had somehow been targeted by sophisticated scammers. The email he received was different from his broker's real email by just one letter. The "y" was missing from the company's name, and the money his wife sent had actually gone to a bank account set up by scammers.
"I was thinking about having to go home that night and tell my wife that we had lost a significant amount of money and we probably are never going to get it back," Malone said.
Investigators call the scam "business email compromise." Hackers, many overseas in places like Nigeria, break into business emails, look for opportunities to steal, disguise themselves to look like they are part of impending deals, and then trick people into sending the money to accounts the scammers control.
Scott Smith, an assistant director of the FBI, says scammers have made off with billions of dollars in the last several years.
Mike and Gail Malone were lucky. Secret Service agents on their case moved quickly, froze the scammers' bank account, recovered their money and made arrests.
"I can't begin to tell you the feeling you have when you think a substantial portion of your life's savings is gone instantly. And it happened that quick," Malone said.
Malone says the scammers are so sophisticated that they not only got into his email accounts, they jammed his internet access and diverted some of his phone messages. Investigators say they also have as many as 1,000 "money mules" operating right now, moving cash throughout the country.