55-year-old Richard lives in Essex with his partner of 14 years. Together they run a weekend theatre school for 5-19 year olds.
They’d been looking to buy a home to settle down in, closer to their business. And after finding their perfect place in a village called Maldon, the couple began the legal process to buy the house in January 2020.
Everything was going smoothly, and they couldn’t wait to move in. Until they were scammed into sending the £23,000 deposit they’d saved to a fraudster pretending to be their lawyer. This is their story.
55-year-old Richard lives in Essex with his partner of 14 years
We’d saved up for a deposit and found our dream home
We’d been living in a flat in Chelmsford for a few years, but always knew we wanted to buy somewhere bigger, with a garden, where we could really settle down.
We’d been saving up for a few years. But because of our business, it was difficult to get approved for a mortgage. Along with my age, this meant we were rejected more than a few times! But I was able to draw some money from my pension, and we sold one of our cars and added the money to our savings too.
So it’d been a few years in the making when we finally found a house we loved and got approved for the mortgage. We were ecstatic!
We needed a solicitor to help us with buying the house. So I found a firm by doing research on Google and looking at some comparison sites. We settled on one with positive feedback and a competitive price.
But when we started working with them, their communication wasn’t always great. We didn’t really feel like we got to know them, and trying to get hold of them could be difficult.
Anyway, we were on track to complete on the house by the end of March and move in, and the next step was to exchange contracts.
As part of exchanging contracts, we had to pay the deposit. So it made sense when we got an email from the solicitor on 5th March asking us to transfer £23,000 for the deposit.
Richard had never fallen victim to a scam before
"As part of exchanging contracts, we had to pay the deposit. So it made sense when we got an email from the solicitor on 5th March asking us to transfer £23,000 for the deposit."
We sent the £23,000 we’d saved up for the deposit to someone we thought was our solicitor
I made a bank transfer to send the money over to the solicitor, using the bank details they gave me. As far as we were concerned, we’d paid the deposit and just had to wait to hear back.
But when two weeks passed without hearing from them, we started to worry. So I sent them an email to check in on the progress of the sale.
The solicitor called me immediately. They told me they’d never asked me to pay the deposit, and definitely hadn’t got the £23,000 I sent. My blood ran cold.
"The solicitor called me immediately. They told me they’d never asked me to pay the deposit, and definitely hadn’t got the £23,000 I sent. My blood ran cold."
A fraudster had tricked us into sending the deposit by pretending to be our solicitor, at exactly the right time
I immediately changed my email password, and reported what’d happened to Action Fraud and Monzo.
I looked back over our old emails with the solicitor. The email asking us to send over the deposit was in the same thread as all our other communications with them. They’d even put the bank details in a document that had our solicitor’s logo on the header.
There was no reason for us to think anything was suspicious. And I still don’t know how they were able to send us the email, or how they knew exactly the right moment to ask us to send the deposit.
What they did was despicable, but incredibly clever. And it completely fooled me.
I just couldn’t believe it had happened to me
When it happened, the bottom fell out of our world. We kept going over and over it, thinking about what we’d done wrong.
I use a password manager, I always choose strong passwords and never re-use them. I’ve never been scammed before and think I’m quite savvy. I thought I knew how to keep my money and information safe. That’s what’s haunted me so much – I just couldn’t believe this happened to me.
We almost lost the house
We were in such a dark place for the first few days. It was the week before lockdown and we’d been staying at my parents’ while we waited to move into our new home, so we were stuck there.
Eventually, we agreed we just had to accept that the money had gone for good and we were never going to see it again. We were scared we’d never be able to let it go.
How to avoid a scam like this
After looking at the details of Richard’s case we were able to reimburse him, and the couple are due to complete on their house this week.
But because scams like this ask you to send a bank transfer, it’s very difficult for us (or any bank) to actually get your money back. Bank transfers are basically instant. And as soon as you send the money, the fraudster moves it to a different account, meaning it’s difficult to trace and hard to get back.
Luckily, there are a few things Monzo and other banks do to protect you from scams like this. And a few things you can do to help yourself.
1. Always double-check before you make a payment, especially with big amounts
Always contact the person asking you to make a payment to check they’ve actually asked you, and you’re paying who you think you are.
Don’t just reply to the same email, or call them on the number they rang you on. Use a different method of communication (e.g. if they’ve emailed you, phone them on the official number from their website to double-check). That way you’re more likely to reach the right person, rather than just talking to the fraudster!
For example, if your landlord emails you saying you should pay your rent to a different account, give them a call on the number you usually speak to them on, to double check that’s correct.
2. Be cautious when making payments, even if you’ve paid the person before
Even if you've paid a person or company before and everything’s been fine, that doesn't mean you should let your guard down. If payment details change or someone contacts you unexpectedly, always verify the details BEFORE making the payment.
We've had people say before things like "well I've paid my builder before so I trusted him, we'd always email so I didn't think anything of it when he asked me to send money elsewhere".
Basically stressing that even if you think you know the payer, always get in touch with them to double check, preferably speaking to them over the phone (if you know them - you'll recognise their voice). Although that's probably too long-winded! (I'm not a writer!)
3. We now check the account name and details you typed in actually match those on the account you’re trying to pay
Since Richard was scammed, all banks have added a new feature called Confirmation of Payee, that’s designed to make bank transfers safer. It means we check the account holder name and details you typed in, actually match those on the account you’re paying. If the details don't match, we'll let you know before you make the payment.
This is useful if the account you’re paying into belongs to a fraudster who’s hiding their identity under a fake name.
If we tell you there’s a mismatch, call the person or company you’re trying to pay on the number on their official website. Don’t use the number they give you – if it’s a fraudster, all you’ll be doing is calling them!
If you’ve fallen victim to a scam like this, tell your bank as soon as possible
Bank transfers send the money almost instantly. And once they get it, the fraudster usually moves it to a different account straight away.
So the sooner you tell your bank, the quicker we can get in touch with the bank you sent the money to, and try and get it back.