Calgary·GO PUBLIC

Bank wires fraudsters over $800K of retiree's savings, despite red flags

A Calgary man is suing his private bank after it wired money to fraudsters, despite security red flags. A former FBI agent says wire fraud is now "so rampant" in Canada and the U.S. that better laws are needed to protect customers.

Cidel Bank Canada blames customer, says it has ‘no obligation’ to reimburse longtime client

Rod McLeod of Calgary was emailed by a fraudster pretending to be his real estate agent, directing him to wire over $800,000 to a bogus escrow account. (Patrick Carroll/CBC)

A Calgary retiree says he was "sick to his stomach" after learning his bank wired more than $800,000 of his savings to fraudsters despite security red flags.

Rod McLeod, 75, was a longtime customer with Cidel Bank — one of dozens of private banks in Canada that handle wealth management for people with high incomes or sizeable assets. 

"It has turned my life upside down," says McLeod, a retired lawyer. "I expected them to protect me."

McLeod is suing, alleging "negligence, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty" by Cidel in a statement of claim filed last week.

It's one more case of what's become a multibillion-dollar problem in Canada and the U.S., according to authorities. 

Wire fraud is a "huge problem" and "so rampant," investigator and former FBI agent Don Vilfer told Go Public, that better laws are needed in Canada and the U.S. to protect bank customers. 

"Legislation in both Canada and the U.S. is behind in terms of requiring financial institutions to take certain steps … [to prevent] this kind of thing," Vilfer said. 

In September 2018, McLeod was excited to make an offer on a condo in Rancho Mirage, Calif. — just north of Palm Desert.

He had Cidel wire a deposit to a California bank account and waited for instructions on the outstanding balance of $619,000 US ($820,000 Cdn).

A few weeks later, an email supposedly from the realtor handling the sale, said the balance should go to a different bank — Chase Bank in Denver, Colo.

Even though his escrow agent had cautioned him, two months earlier, against any sudden changes, McLeod says the warning was forgotten in the push to seal the deal. 

The seller, he'd been told, was a billionaire. "So it made sense that he banked in several places."

McLeod sent the new instructions to his contact at Cidel.

But the email wasn't from his realtor, Brady Sandahl. It was from a new email address, created by fraudsters who had transposed the last two letters of Sandahl's name so that, at first glance, it appeared legit.

A screengrab of one of the emails, impersonating real estate agent Brady Sandahl. The fraudster created a new email address, transposing two letters of Sandahl's name. (Submitted by Rod McLeod)

When that email arrived at Cidel, it appears the bank's mail server flagged it, tacking "SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE" onto the subject line. 

Despite that warning, a bank employee emailed the fraudster, asking for the address of the bank account owner — adding a senior Cidel employee and McLeod to the email thread.

McLeod says his excitement about the condo got the better of him. He didn't notice the email had been flagged, and, he says, had no prior experience wiring money to another country.

"I don't do this every day. This is something that's totally new to me," he said. 

"My wife said, 'You wanted it too much, you ignored the red flags.'" 

A realtor's photo of the condo McLeod wanted to buy in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in October 2018. (Realtor.com)

McLeod and his wife authorized the wire transfer. The money went to Denver, where fraudsters quickly transferred most of it to the Bank of China in Hong Kong.

Days later, when McLeod made inquiries about next steps, it became apparent he was the victim of fraud.

"I thought, this can't be happening," he says. "It just can't be happening."

Chase Bank was able to keep $26,000 US from being transferred, and that money was returned to McLeod.

McLeod hired Vilfer to investigate. Since leaving the FBI over a decade ago, Vilfer has testified in over 100 cases, often providing expert testimony on digital forensics in cases involving wire fraud.

"It's very profitable for the fraudsters when they can pull it off," he says. "We had one client that lost $14 million — and they're [fraudsters] doing this all day long."

Former FBI agent Don Vilfer says better laws are needed in Canada and the U.S. to protect bank customers. (Submitted by Don Vilfer)

In his report to McLeod, Vilfer says the realtor's email account may have been compromised and recommended further analysis of the realtor's devices and accounts. 

"With email hijacking scams of this type, in my experience, it is the realtor or mortgage broker who is targeted," he wrote.

Sandahl did not respond to calls for comment from Go Public. 

Multibillion-dollar problem

The case is an example of what investigators call "business email compromise" — a type of wire fraud that targets businesses and their customers. Typically, the fraudster hacks into a business's email account and impersonates the sender, instructing the customer to redirect the money. 

Go Public recently investigated this type of scam, and spoke to a Toronto-area businessman who lost almost $3,000. 

Compromised business emails — particularly in the real estate sector — led to an estimated loss of $12 billion US over the past five years, according to the FBI. Such scams were reported in 150 countries, and all 50 U.S. states.

Vilfer says McLeod's bank — Cidel — should have stopped the scam in its tracks.

"You have the flag on the email that it's a suspicious message," says Vilfer. "And with this kind of fraud that's so prevalent … that should certainly cause some sort of alarm, to take an extra look at this and see why is this being flagged?"

"Good technology ... apparently was ignored," he said. 

'Gross negligence'

In the statement of claim against Cidel, McLeod's lawyer, Brett Code, alleges the bank's actions "represent a marked departure from the required standard of care, and constitute gross negligence."

It seeks full compensation for McLeod's loss. 

None of the allegations has been proven in court and Cidel has not yet responded to the statement of claim. 

In one of two emails to McLeod, Cidel CEO Craig Rimer wrote: "We are very sorry that you've had to go through this terrible experience and for the financial loss you endured."

However, he wrote, Cidel has no obligation to reimburse McLeod. 

In a second, one-line email, Rimer blamed McLeod for the wire fraud, writing, "The introduction to the email address came from you and you authorized the transaction after much back and forth between them [fraudsters] and you."

Rimer declined to be interviewed but sent Go Public a statement saying, "We acted in accordance with the express written and signed wire instructions that were delivered to us by our client." 

He would not outline what policies exist at the bank when it comes to conducting wire transfers, but wrote that Cidel acted in full compliance with all industry standards and that the bank will continue to assist its client in recovering the funds from "an unscrupulous third party."

Though the bank's server apparently flagged the email as 'suspicious,' McLeod and employees continued to correspond with the fraudsters. (Patrick Carroll/CBC)

Better protections needed

There is no legislation in Canada or the U.S. that requires a financial institution to confirm the identity of a bank account holder who is receiving a wire transfer to prevent fraud and protect customers.  

It's considered a best practice for banks to confirm they are sending a client's money to an appropriate destination, but Vilfer — the former FBI agent — thinks that needs to become law. 

"We're just relying on the banks doing the right thing," he says. "It would be a good idea for both the United States and Canada to stiffen up the statutory requirements; require policies for protecting against this sort of fraud."

The largest insurer of U.S. banks, ABA Insurance Services, said recently it's "critical" that banks start making phone calls to authenticate wire transfers, among other procedures. 

McLeod knows his lawsuit against Cidel could drag on for years.

"If I don't win this, I'm throwing good money after bad," he says. "And they can outlast me. I'm 75 years old."

He's also moved his remaining assets to another management company.

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About the Author

Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda

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