Fraudsters used a bogus email to trick solicitors into sending more than £600,000 from the sale of a client’s house to their bank account.
Nicola McConnell, 70, was defrauded of £613,000 when she sold her five-bedroom house in Fulham, southwest London, for £1.9 million. The fraudsters created an email account with one letter different from hers and used it to request the money from her solicitors.
Mrs McConnell, a retired educational psychologist, was “traumatised to the point of being suicidal” after she found out that her solicitors had been duped and she might not see her money again. “My sleep, memory and confidence have been hugely damaged,” she said. “What to some is a victimless crime, since it was against a company and apparently covered partially by insurance, is to me highly personal.”
By the time Giuseppe Oliva, 41, the recipient of the money, was caught by the police, much of the cash had disappeared into other accounts. Only £150,000 was recovered. The rest was paid back by the solicitors.
Yesterday at Aylesbury crown court Oliva, from Milton Keynes, was jailed for five years after he was found guilty at a trial last month of converting criminal property. He was banned from being a company director for eight years.
Mrs McConnell and her husband, Brian, 74, had never used computer banking and kept personal information off the internet, so the case highlights that even the most cautious people may be vulnerable to attack. To avoid putting her bank details online Mrs McConnell had posted a handwritten note through her solicitors’ door with instructions about where to send the proceeds of the sale.
At 11.38am on the morning that contracts were exchanged in February 2017, a poorly written email was sent to Woodfords Solicitors from the fraudulent address. “After Due consideration, I want Half of the proceeds paid into my account you have on file and the other half directly into my fixed savings account details below . . . Please reply me now so I know you have received this instruction.” Details of a Metro Bank account were given and Mrs McConnell’s name was misspelt.
The solicitors tried to phone Mrs McConnell to confirm that she did want the proceeds of the house sale to be split in this way. At the time of the call she was busy packing and could not remember the details of her sort code and account number but she did have a Metro Bank account. Woodfords transferred £613,051.74 to the account.
The police traced the money to a business called Eco Voice owned by Oliva, but just over £533,000, had been transferred to other accounts within 48 hours, some owned by Oliva and some to businesses overseas.
Metro Bank blocked the account and asked Oliva to prove that he was entitled to the money. He brought an invoice supposedly for more than £600,000 of computer equipment that he said was ordered by Woodfords. The invoice had no VAT address.
The paperwork was a dishonest creation “put forward to support a lie”, the prosecution said. He knew “full well” that Mrs McConnell’s money was “criminal property, her money gained by fraud”.
The bank said: “We continue to work closely with the wider industry and law enforcement agencies to protect customers from these crimes.”
Behind the story
The sophistication of the attack suggests that the fraudsters knew the timing of the house sale and when to strike against the solicitors (Dominic Kennedy and Will Humphries write). The investigating officers have told Mr and Mrs McConnell that they will probably never know how the fraudsters knew.
At the trial the prosecution was unable to show whether Oliva was the author, sender or mastermind behind the attack but the jury accepted that he knew that the money was not his to use. It appears likely that the brains behind the scam are still at large. Some of the accounts involved in the fraud were linked to Nigeria and South Africa.
Once the scam was discovered Woodfords Solicitors was advised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to replace the money in its client account within 48 hours. The loss was eventually made good by insurers.