A Manhattan couple wired a $1.9 million deposit for their new co-op but learned that the messages from an AOL e-mail account hid a crucial detail: They got conned.
Robert Millard, a managing partner at Realm Partners, and his wife, Bethany, blame their real estate attorney, Patricia Doran, for “cybercriminals” stealing the 10 percent deposit intended for a Manhattan co-op they were buying for $19.4 million, according to a new lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court. The Millards claim that Doran’s use of an AOL e-mail account and her lack of computer security essentially served as a neon sign welcoming hackers to snatch their money.
In November 2015, the “cybercriminals,” who are not identified in the lawsuit, easily discovered that the couple was planning to wire a large sum of money, the lawsuit claims. They posed as Doran and instructed the Millards to send the deposit to a bank account, saying it belonged to the co-op seller — though it was really controlled by the cybercriminals. They then allegedly posed as the sellers and e-mailed Doran, saying that the money had successfully gone through. Without checking the veracity of the e-mail, Doran forwarded this message to the Millards, the lawsuit claims.
“Had Doran recognized the red flags … and/or attempted to orally confirm the proper receipt of the Millards’ deposit funds, the stolen funds would have been recovered,” the lawsuit states. “Doran, however, was oblivious to the threat of cybercrime, and did nothing to protect the Millards’ interests from this form of fraud.”
Doran did not return a call seeking comment. The address for the co-op is not provided in the lawsuit and the sale of the co-op didn’t appear in property records under the Millards’ name.
The Millards were eventually able to recover all but $200,000 of the purloined deposit, the New York Post first reported. They are seeking that sum and additional damages in their lawsuit.
The scam joins a recent wave of similar cyber crimes, where hackers monitor e-mails and convince unwitting small businesses to wire funds. Hackers recently bilked $80,000 in closing funds and $20,000 in deposits from a Massachusetts-based brokerage, the business told columnist Kenneth Harney. The National Association of Realtors and other title insurance companies have sounded the alarms on the schemes, the Wall Street Journal reported in October.
AOL takes quite a hit in the Millards’ complaint, though the company isn’t named as a defendant. The lawsuit states that the e-mail service — once the height of cool in the dial-up era — suffers from a “number of substandard features, including poor detection of suspicious log in attempts, poor security” that “together render email accounts easy to unauthorized penetration.” The lawsuit also claims that Doran didn’t use security features offered by AOL to improve security.
A representative for AOL did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Earlier this month, AOL founder Steve Case told Yahoo News that AOL e-mail was, in the fashion of vinyl, “becoming cool again.”