Herts couple caught up in nationwide property hacking scandal

Disturbing: Property hacking comes to Hertfordshire

Disturbing: Property hacking comes to Hertfordshire - Credit: Archant

The scam was a continual problem throughout 2015 and in December ensnared Ritchie and Sarah Tough, on the cusp of finalising their property purchase in a Herts market town.

A newlywed couple’s idyllic plan to set up home in one of Hertfordshire’s historic market towns has been shattered by online con artists.

Sarah and Ritchie Tough were set to buy a 3-bed home in Bishop Stortford, laying down a hard-earned deposit totalling £45,000, which has now vanished without a trace.

The con has been a nationwide problem, targeting home buyers and taking huge chunks of their savings.

How it works - a hacker pinpoints civilian email accounts that are in conversation with solicitors, monitoring the instance when the house hunter transfers funds.

Taking on the ID of the solicitor, the hacker then intercepts the email exchange between lawyer and buyer before the bank details for the deposit are divulged. The hacker then provides the buyer with bank account details for their own account, rather than the solicitor’s.

This scam was rife throughout 2015 and in December ensnared the Toughs.

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Recruitment consultant Sarah had been dealing with Leeds-based conveyance firm Advantage Property Lawyers by email for weeks prior to their expected home move, who seemingly emailed her requesting the deposit for the £269,000 property, green-lighting the exchange. A few days before Christmas she was emailed again and told that the firm’s usual bank account was being audited, so Sarah should instead pay the cash into a Barclays branch. It gave her an account number and sort code. She made the transfer.

She was then informed by Advantage Property Lawyers that they had not emailed her the bank details yet and that no money had been received.

Barclays’ fraud team were able to retrieve £22,000 of the money – less than half the total amount. The remainder of the couple’s deposit was lost along the way due to the hacker withdrawing it in three transactions at different branches in a single day.

Expert investigators have declared that the emails were cleverly intercepted and certainly appeared to be legitimate, showing no signs of fraud. It would have been impossible for Sarah Tough to know she was being scammed.

Ritchie, 34, a director at a wine company, told thisismoney: “Losing this money is bad enough. But what makes it worse is that this could have all been avoided if our emails had been encrypted. It seems crazy to ask us to transfer such huge amounts by sending a bank account number.”

While Barclays have helped, they are not liable for the loss of money, and an industry watchdog spokesman has since said that “clients should always do all they can to keep email accounts and personal data secure as a precaution and take great care with high value transactions in particular.”

The Toughs can only go forward with their Hertfordshire purchase should their family lend them the second half of the stolen money.