Category Archives: News

bankHometown Kicks off 16th Annual Pajama Drive for Local Children in need during the Holidays

OXFORD, MA:  bankHometown kicked off their 16th annual pajama drive on November 26th with a challenge to residents to help support local children in need of new pajamas or slippers.

From now until December 15th, all 13 bankHometown branches will be accepting pajama donations for children sizes 4T and up, as well as small and medium sizes in men and women. Pajamas must be in complete sets (top and bottom) or an appropriate nightgown. The pajamas and slippers will go to local shelters throughout central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut.

“We believe in giving back to our community all year round, but especially for children during the winter and holiday season,” said Matthew Sosik, President and CEO of bankHometown. “This initiative is to give children in our communities the warmth and comfort they may need during the cold winter nights.”

The pajamas and slippers are sent to local schools in central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut, as well as the TEEG (Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group) in Thompson, Connecticut.

bankHometown was founded in 1889 and is headquartered in Oxford, Massachusetts, bankHometown has 13 branches located throughout central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information, please visit www.hometowncoop.com.

Hometown Financial Group (HFG), a $2.1 billion mutual holding company headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is the parent company of bankESB and bankHometown. Both banking franchises offer a complete line of commercial, business, and consumer products to customers throughout its 24 branches located throughout western and central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information on Hometown Financial Group, please visit www.bankhfg.com.

bankHometown promotes Jennifer McKenna to Branch Manager of Brooklyn Office

Oxford, Massachusetts – Jennifer McKenna accepted the position as Branch Manager of the bankHometown Brooklyn, Connecticut location on Saturday, November 10th, 2018.

Prior to accepting this position, McKenna was the Branch Supervisor of the Brooklyn Office, and prior to that role, she was the Assistant Manager of the Woodstock Office. McKenna has 10 years of experience in banking and is certified in Administrative Office Technology. She is currently working on braille fluency.

McKenna is an active member in her community, serving as a member of the Eastern CT Center for the Blind, the National Federation for the Blind, Brooklyn Business Association and the Eastern CT Chamber of Commerce.

McKenna and her family reside in Danielson, Connecticut.

bankHometown was founded in 1889 and is headquartered in Oxford, Massachusetts, bankHometown has 13 branches located throughout central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information, please visit www.hometowncoop.com.

Hometown Financial Group (HFG), a $2.1 billion mutual holding company headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is the parent company of bankESB and bankHometown. Both banking franchises offer a complete line of commercial, business, and consumer products to customers throughout its 24 branches located throughout western and central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information on Hometown Financial Group, please visit www.bankhfg.com.

bankHometown Kicks off 15th Year of Contributing to Annual Neighbors Helping Neighbors Campaign

OXFORD, Massachusetts – bankHometown kicked off their 15th year of participating in the Annual Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN) Campaign with a challenge to local residents to help support local food pantries.

For more than 30 years, NHN has helped people faced with financial difficulties caused by accidents, fires, life challenging illness and disabilities or other reasons beyond their control. Each November, customers and community members are invited to be a Hometown Hero for a $1 donation or a Hometown Superhero for a $5 donation, and business customers are solicited to contribute in larger amounts. bankHometown then matches all donations, dollar for dollar, and splits the funds among food pantries that serve the areas surrounding each of its seven offices.

This year’s campaign includes an opportunity to enter a drawing for a $25 gift card. Anyone may participate just by dropping by one of bankHometown’s 13 offices to make a donation in MA or CT.

bankHometown President and CEO, Matthew S. Sosik says “Last year’s campaign concluded with a total distribution of $25,000.00, representing contributions from personal and business customers, Bank employees and directors, and a dollar for dollar matching gift from the Bank. It’s a way for the bank and its customers to make a real difference in the lives of local residents.”

Neighbors Helping Neighbors donations benefit (in MA) the Auburn Youth and Family Services, Inc. Food Pantry (Auburn), CARE Food Pantry (Clinton), Food Share (Southbridge, Charlton & Sturbridge), Ginny’s Helping Hand, Inc. (Leominster), Oxford Ecumenical Food Shelf (Oxford), Salvation Army (Athol), St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry (Webster); (in CT) Daily Bread (Putnam), Friends of Assisi (Killingly), and Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group (TEEG) (Thompson).

bankHometown was founded in 1889 and is headquartered in Oxford, Massachusetts, bankHometown has 13 branches located throughout central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information, please visit www.hometowncoop.com.

Hometown Financial Group (HFG), a $2.1 billion mutual holding company headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is the parent company of bankESB and bankHometown. Both banking franchises offer a complete line of commercial, business, and consumer products to customers throughout its 24 branches located throughout western and central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information on Hometown Financial Group, please visit www.bankhfg.com.

HOMETOWN BANK COMMUNITY FOUNDATION CONTRIBUTES $1,000 TO SOUTHBRIDGE FAMILY FUN DAY

Oxford, Massachusetts-

The Hometown Bank Community Foundation announced their contribution to the first Southbridge Family Fun Day that took place on August 25, 2018.

As a major sponsor of the event, bankHometown worked closely with The Salvation Army, who put on the event, Southbridge Community Connections, Tradewinds Clubhouse and KIVA Wellness Center. The event served around 500 meals, much of which was donated, and provided free fun activities such as face painting, raffles donated from local businesses, two bounce houses and a live DJ.

“We wanted to do something for the community that was fun and free – a ‘get away’ from everyday life, even if it was only for a few hours,” said Sabrina Grillo, Branch Manager of the bankHometown Sturbridge branch.

This was the first ever Family Fun Day in Southbridge, and due to the event’s success, sponsors are looking into making this event happen annually.

Hometown Bank Community Foundation, Inc. was formed in early 2016 by bankHometown, a state-chartered cooperative bank headquartered in Oxford, Massachusetts with $750 million in assets.

bankHometown has served its communities since 1889 with offices in Massachusetts (Athol, Auburn, Leominster, Oxford, Lancaster, Sturbridge and Webster) and Connecticut (Putnam, Brooklyn, Killingly, Thompson and Woodstock). Depositors of bankHometown have their deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for amounts up to $250,000 with amounts in excess of $250,000 insured in full by the Share Insurance Fund, a private excel insurer.

eBusiness Solutions: Fraud Prevention Best Practices

User ID and Password Guidelines

  • Create a “strong” password with at least 8 characters that includes a combination of mixed case letters, numbers, and special
  • Change your password
  • Never share username, password or token information with anyone, including third-party
  • Avoid using an automatic login feature that saves usernames and and passwords.

General Guidelines

  • Do not use public or other unsecured computers for logging into eBusiness.
  • Users should check the last login date/time every time they log Last login date/time is displayed on the Welcome Page.
  • If the system does not recognize your computer or location, you will be asked to provide additional information to log into eBusiness Solutions. This is called Out-of-Band Authentication via phone or SMS text.
  • Review account balances and detail transactions on a daily basis to confirm payment and other transaction data and immediately report any suspicious transactions to your financial Review historical and audit reports regularly to confirm user access and transaction activity.
  • Take advantage of and regularly view system alerts; examples include:
    • ACH Alerts
    • Wire Alerts
    • Security Notification Alerts
  • Do not use account numbers, your social security number, tax id number, or other account or personal information when creating account nicknames or other
  • Use the historical reporting features of your online banking application on a regular basis to confirm payment and other transaction
  • Never leave a computer unattended while using eBusiness Solutions.
  • Never conduct banking transactions while multiple browsers are open on your
  • An FBI recommended best practice is to suggest that company users dedicate a PC solely for financial transactions (e.g., no web browsing, emails, or social media). This can effectively seal off threats that can come from visiting various websites, which could lead to becoming a target for hackers and Corporate Account Take Over (CATO).
  • Familiarize yourself with bankHometown’s Cash Management Master Agreement and Internet Banking Services Schedule. Immediately escalate any suspicious activity or transactions to a bankHometown representative by calling 855-527-4111 There is a very limited recovery window for unauthorized, previously revoked commercial debit transactions (they must be made available to the Originating Depository Financial Institution no later than the opening of business on the second banking day following the settlement date of the original entry) and immediate escalation may prevent further loss.

Administrative Users

  • Prohibit the use of “shared” usernames and passwords for eBusiness Solutions.
  • Limit administrative rights on users’ workstations to help prevent the inadvertent downloading of malware or other
  • Dedicate and limit the number of computers used to complete online banking transactions; do not allow Internet browsing or e-mail exchange and ensure these computers are equipped with latest versions and patches of both anti-virus and anti- spyware
  • Delete online user IDs as part of the exit procedure when employees leave your Review and adjust User entitlements as access needs change and delete any inactive Users.
  • Use multiple approvals for monetary transactions and require separate entry and approval
  • Establish transaction dollar limits for employees who initiate and approve online payments such as ACH batches, wire transfers, and account

Tips to Protect Online Payments, ACH and Wire

  • Require dual control of ACH and wire transfer payments. Each transaction should be drafted by one employee and approved by another (dual control).
  • Take advantage of transaction Establish limits for monetary transactions at maximum daily limits and maximum per transaction limits.
  • Use pre-notification transactions to verify that account numbers within your ACH payments are corre
  • When you have completed a transaction, ensure you log off to close the connection with the financial organization’s
  • Use separate accounts for electronic and paper transactions to simplify monitoring and tracking any discrepancies.

Tips to Avoid Phishing, Spyware and Malware

  • Do not open e-mail from unknown sources. Be suspicious of e-mails purporting to be from a financial institution, government department, or other agency requesting account information, account verification, or banking access credentials such as usernames, passwords, PIN codes, and similar information. Opening file attachments or clicking on web links in suspicious e-mails could expose your system to malicious code that could hijack your computer.
  • Do not enter token codes into links that you clicked on in an e-mail. Instead, type the URL of the reputable site to which you want to authenticate.
  • Never respond to a suspicious e-mail or click on any hyperlink embedded in a suspicious e-mail. Call the purported source if you are unsure who sent an e-mail. If an e-mail claiming to be from your financial organization seems suspicious, checking with your financial organization is bankHometown will never call you and ask for personal or business information over the telephone or request information via e-mail.

 

  • Install commercial anti-virus and spyware detection software on all computer Update all of your computers regularly with the latest versions and patches of both anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Free software may not provide the level of protection against the latest threats that a licensed industry standard product can.
  • Ensure computers are patched regularly, particularly operating systems, browsers, and key
  • Install a dedicated, actively managed firewall, especially if using a broadband or dedicated connection to the Internet, such as DSL or A firewall limits the potential for unauthorized access to your network and computers.
  • Check your settings and select, at least, a medium level of security for your
  • Be advised that repeatedly being asked to enter your password/token code are signs of potentially harmful

Tips for Wireless Network Management

Wireless networks can provide an unintended open door to your business network. Unless a valid business reason exists for wireless network use, it is recommended that all wireless networks be disabled. If a wireless network is to be used for legitimate business purposes, it is recommended that wireless networks be secured as follows:

  • Change the wireless network hardware (router /access point) administrative password from the factory default to a complex Save the password in a secure location as it will be needed to make future changes to the device.
  • Disable remote administration of the wireless network hardware (router / access point) and if possible, disable broadcasting the network
  • If your device offers WPA encryption, secure your wireless network by enabling WPA encryption of the wireless If your device does not support WPA encryption, enable WEP encryption.
  • If only known computers will access the wireless network, consider enabling MAC filtering on the network Every computer network card is assigned a unique MAC address. MAC filtering will only allow computers with permitted MAC addresses access to the wireless network.

 

Tips to avoid Business Email Compromise (BEC)

  • Treat email with caution – email is a gateway into your computer and personal information, so make sure you only open emails/attachments from known senders and, in general, be wary of emails with attachments and links. Make sure everyone on your team is on the alert.
  • Check for spoofed (i.e. false and deceptive) domain names – this can help you identify if someone might be launching a Business Email Compromise (BEC) scam against your company.
  • Limit publicly available information – criminals use public information to target companies for BEC scams.
  • Implement a formal process for money transfers and documentation requests – ensure there is a formal process for high-risk transactions such as wire transfers and requests for sensitive documentation.
  • Require dual approval for high-risk transactions – segregation of duties and including more than one individual in a transaction is a great way to help mitigate external and internal fraud.
  • Use Forward instead of Reply – when receiving an email requesting a money transfer or for sensitive information, using forward and sending it back to the intended recipient can help you avoid falling victim to a BEC scam that utilizes a spoofed domain.
  • Use Out of Band to Verify – use a different channel to verify. If the request came in via email, use phone (and not the phone number that is in the e-mail) and vice versa. Also be sure to verify beneficiary bank and account number.
  • Color code emails – so emails from employees or internal accounts are one color, and emails from non-employees or external accounts are another color.
  • Adding new vendors – when changing vendor payment information by using phone verification as part of the two-factor authentication. When doing this, use previously known phone numbers, not the numbers provided in the email request.
  • Don’t get complacent – fraud is ever-changing, keep up to date.

bankHometown welcomes Nancy S. Roberts as AVP and Branch Manager of Webster Branches

Oxford, MA – Matthew S. Sosik, President and CEO of bankHometown, announced that Nancy S. Roberts has accepted the position as AVP and Branch Manager of the two Webster Branches (4 Gore Road and 218R Main Street) starting on June 6th.

Prior to joining bankHometown, Nancy was the Vice President, Business Development Branch Manager at Eastern Savings Bank. She worked previously at First Niagara Bank and People’s United Bank. Nancy was born and raised in Queens, NY.

She moved to Connecticut and is an active member of her community. She has been involved with several non-profits and community groups such as the Danielson Rotary, American Cancer Society Relay for Life, and the Deary Memorial Cancer Fund Auction. She is currently Vice President of the Board of Martin House, Inc., Thames River Community Service Inc., and serves on both finance and personnel committees.

In 2012, she was honored to participate in Follow the Fifty, a group formed of more than 180 women from northeastern Connecticut who vowed to participate in a year long journey to be community models of heart health as well as bring awareness of heart disease in women.

Nancy is an avid scrap booker, a covenant member of the Green Valley Crossing, and resides in Danielson with her husband, Ron. She has two children, Mathew and Michael, who reside in Massachusetts.

bankHometown has served its communities since 1889 with offices in Massachusetts (Athol, Auburn, Leominster, Oxford, Lancaster, Sturbridge and Webster) and Connecticut (Putnam, Brooklyn, Killingly, Thompson and Woodstock). Depositors of bankHometown have their deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for amounts up to $250,000 with amounts in excess of $250,000 insured in full by the Share Insurance Fund, a private excess insurer.

Hometown Financial Group to Acquire Pilgrim Bancshares

July 25, 2018- Easthampton, Massachusetts and Cohasset, Massachusetts – Hometown Financial Group, Inc. the holding company for bankESB (Easthampton, MA) and bankHometown (Oxford, MA), and Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. (OTC: PLRM) have jointly announced today that they have entered into a definitive merger agreement in which Hometown Financial Group, Inc. will acquire Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. Pilgrim Bancshares is the parent company of Pilgrim Bank, a $263 million Massachusetts-chartered cooperative bank with branches located in the Massachusetts communities of Cohasset and Marion.

Under the terms of the agreement, shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares will receive $23.00 in cash per share. The total transaction value is approximately $53.9 million. The merger consideration represents an estimated 151% of Pilgrim Bancshares tangible book value as of March 31, 2018.  The transaction is expected to close early in the first quarter of 2019.  Hometown Financial Group will maintain Pilgrim Bank as a separate banking subsidiary and does not expect to close any Pilgrim Bank branch offices in connection with the transaction.

The transaction will expand Hometown Financial Group’s market presence into eastern Massachusetts.  Following the completion of the transaction, Hometown Financial Group will have consolidated assets of approximately $2.4 billion and a branch network of 26 full-service offices. The transaction is expected to be accretive to Hometown Financial Group’s earnings in the first year of combined operations.

“We see the Pilgrim Bank franchise as a great first step into eastern Massachusetts,” said Matthew S. Sosik, President and CEO of Hometown Financial Group.  “With our established presence in central and western Massachusetts through our bankHometown and bankESB franchises, Hometown Financial Group is actively looking to expand into new markets which offer attractive growth opportunities.  The Pilgrim Bank franchise fits nicely into our growth plans. We look forward to welcoming Pilgrim Bank into our family of banks.”

Once complete, this transaction will be the third strategic merger for Hometown Financial Group in the last three years.  In 2015, the company acquired Citizens National Bancorp., Inc. based in Putnam, Connecticut, and then merged with Hometown Community Bancorp, MHC, the holding company for Hometown Bank in 2016.  Following the Pilgrim Bancshares acquisition, Hometown Financial Group will have a franchise with banks headquartered in each of the three major regions of Massachusetts.

“We think our holding company model works well for our customers, communities and employees,” Sosik said.  “Our structure allows our banks to operate independently in their core markets, while taking advantage of shared centralized resources.  Our model is scalable and efficient allowing our bankers to focus their efforts on serving customers and growing market share,” Sosik said. Hometown Financial Group will continue to seek out additional strategic acquisitions and partnerships with like-minded financial institutions.

Francis E. Campbell, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. stated, “This transaction provides excellent value to our shareholders.  We are excited to become part of the mutually-owned Hometown Financial Group and we believe that this partnership will also be beneficial to our employees, customers and communities. The operating model and financial strength of Hometown Financial Group will provide for an expanded array of products and services, as well as the resources for Pilgrim Bank to continue to offer high quality banking solutions.  We are excited for the opportunities created by this transaction.  Hometown Financial Group is a great organization that will provide long-term value for our customers and employees.”

The merger is subject to regulatory approval and the approval of the shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares.

Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a Stifel Company, acted as financial advisor to Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. and rendered a fairness opinion to the Board of Directors of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. in conjunction with this transaction.  Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP served as legal counsel to Hometown Financial Group, Inc. and Luse Gorman served as legal counsel to Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.


Forward-Looking Statements

This news release contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  Forward-looking statements include statements regarding the anticipated closing date of the transaction and anticipated future results. Forward-looking statements can be identified by the fact that they do not relate strictly to historical or current facts.  They often include words like “believe”, “expect”, “anticipate”, “estimate”, and “intend” or future or conditional verbs such as “will”, “would”, “should”, “could” or “may”.  Certain factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from expected results include delays in completing the merger, difficulties in achieving cost savings from the merger or in achieving such cost savings within the expected time frame, difficulties in integrating Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc., increased competitive pressures, changes in the interest rate environment, changes in general economic conditions, legislative and regulatory changes that adversely affect the business in which Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. is engaged, changes in the securities markets and other risks and uncertainties.


Additional Information

Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. will provide its shareholders with a proxy statement and other relevant documents concerning the proposed transaction.  Shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. are urged to read the proxy statement and any amendments or supplements to those documents, because they will contain important information which should be considered before making any decision regarding the transaction.  Shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. will be able to obtain a copy of the proxy statement, and any other relevant documents, without charge, when they become available, at the Securities and Exchange Commission website (www.sec.gov), on the Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. website (www.bankpilgrim.com) under the tab “Investor Relations” or by directing a request to:

Francis E. Campbell
President and Chief Executive Officer
Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.
40 South Main Street
Cohasset, Massachusetts 02025

The information available through Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.’s website is not and shall not be deemed part of this press release or incorporated by reference into other filings that Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. makes with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. and certain of its directors and executive officers may be deemed to be participants in the solicitation of proxies from the shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. in connection with the merger.  Information about the directors and executive officers of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. is set forth in the proxy statement for Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.’s 2018 annual meeting of shareholders, as filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on April 16, 2018.  Additional information regarding the interests of these participants and any other persons who may be deemed participants in the transaction may be obtained by reading the proxy statement regarding the proposed merger when it becomes available. Free copies of this document may be obtained as described in the preceding paragraph.

Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. will provide its shareholders with a proxy statement and other relevant documents concerning the proposed transaction.  Shareholders of Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc. are urged to read the proxy statement and any amendments or supplements to those documents, because they will contain important information which should be considered before making any decision regarding the transaction.


About Hometown Financial Group, Inc.

Hometown Financial Group, a $2.1 billion mutual holding company headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is the parent company of bankESB and bankHometown.  Both banking franchises offer a complete line of commercial, business, and consumer banking and lending products and services to customers through its 23 branches located throughout western and central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information on Hometown Financial Group please visit www.bankhfg.com.

bankESB was founded in 1869 as Easthampton Savings Bank. Headquartered in Easthampton, Massachusetts, bankESB serves the Pioneer Valley with 10 branches located throughout western Massachusetts. A full-range of investment products and services are available through ESB Financial Services. For more information, please visit www.bankesb.com.

bankHometown was founded in 1889 and is headquartered in Oxford, Massachusetts, bankHometown has 13 branches located throughout central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut. For more information, please visit www.hometowncoop.com.


About Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.

Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc., the holding company for Pilgrim Bank, had assets of $262.4 million at March 31, 2018.  Pilgrim Bank operates as a full service community bank with its main office in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and two additional branch offices in Cohasset and Marion, Massachusetts.  Pilgrim Bank provides consumer and commercial deposit and loan products to the South Shore and South Coast areas of Massachusetts, including portions of Plymouth, Norfolk and Bristol Counties.  Pilgrim Bank has been serving area residents since 1916.  For more information about Pilgrim Bank, visit our web site at www.bankpilgrim.com.


For more information, please contact:

Hometown Financial Group, Inc.
Hannah Dion
Corporate Communications Specialist
Phone: (413) 779-2289

 

Pilgrim Bancshares, Inc.
Francis E. Campbell
President and Chief Executive Officer
Phone: (781) 383-0541

bankHometown selects Matthew McAvoy-LaFlamme as new Branch Manager for Putnam Location

OXFORD, MA – Matthew McAvoy-LaFlamme accepted the position as Branch Manager of the bankHometown Putnam, Connecticut location on June 4th, 2018. Prior to accepting this position, Matthew was the Branch Manager of the Killingly location, and prior to that role, he was the Branch Supervisor of the Woodstock location.

Currently, Matthew serves as the treasurer for the Killingly Business Association and is a member of the Killingly Business Association Membership Committee. He is an active volunteer in the Killingly community, having participated Town of Killingly Safety Day, Financial Fair at Crabtree & Evelyn, Thompson Community Day, and several other events.

Matthew attended Quinebaug Valley Community College and is currently working toward his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration at Eastern Connecticut State University. He enjoys music, hiking, and spending time with his friends and family.

bankHometown has served its communities since 1889 with offices in Massachusetts (Athol, Auburn, Leominster, Oxford, Lancaster, Sturbridge and Webster) and Connecticut (Putnam, Brooklyn, Killingly, Thompson and Woodstock).  Depositors of bankHometown have their deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for amounts up to $250,000 with amounts in excess of $250,000 insured in full by the Share Insurance Fund, a private excess insurer.

Hackers scam homebuyers out of millions — and it’s getting worse

WASHINGTON — In this year of horrendous cyberheists — Equifax the most prominent — you’ve probably taken at least a few precautions: changed passwords, stopped opening files and links from unknown senders, upgraded your computer security measures, maybe put a freeze on your credit reports.

But if you’re buying a house and heading to settlement, you could still be far more vulnerable than you think to the fastest-growing form of real estate cybercrime in the U.S.: thefts of home-purchase money wired to complete closing transactions. The scam generally works like this: Hackers find an opening into a title company’s or realty agent’s email account, track upcoming home purchases scheduled for settlements — the pricier the better — then assume the identity of the title agency person handling the transaction.

Days or sometimes weeks before the settlement, the scammer poses as the title or escrow agent whose email accounts they’ve hijacked and instructs the homebuyer to wire the funds needed to close — often hundreds of thousands of dollars, but sometimes far more — to the criminals’ own bank accounts, not the title or escrow company’s legitimate accounts. The criminals then withdraw the money and vanish.

According to new data provided for this column by the FBI, in fiscal year 2017, nearly $1 billion ($969 million) was “diverted or attempted to be diverted” from real estate purchase transactions, and wired to “criminally controlled” accounts. That figure is up explosively from fiscal 2016, when the FBI counted $19 million in wire transfer frauds affecting homebuyers. The bureau describes the current growth rate of this type of theft as “steep,” though the sharp statistical rise may be partially attributable to increased reporting of such hacks by consumers, banks and real estate industry participants. It’s also shocking and devastating to the homebuyers involved. Consider two recent cases involving substantial losses.

In May, a Washington, D.C., couple lost $1.57 million when their wire transfer of settlement funds was hijacked after cyberthieves reportedly penetrated a title and escrow company’s email system and steered the money to their own account.

In January, a Denver couple signed a contract to buy a $504,000 new home. They had sold their previous house and planned to use the $272,536 in proceeds as a down payment. Somewhere along the path to the scheduled closing in April, criminal hackers gained access to the email system of the title company, realty agent or mortgage company — no one seems to know which. The couple received genuine-looking email instructions on wiring the down payment cash in preparation for the settlement. But the instructions were bogus and the money disappeared. Nothing has been recovered.

Though cyberthefts involving home settlements have been occurring for several years, the number of attacks and the dollar amounts stolen during the past year are stunning realty industry experts, who expected that greater public awareness of the problem — and efforts by title and realty firms to better secure their systems — would thwart the hackers.

“It’s unbelievable how often this is happening,” said Jessica Edgerton, associate counsel for the National Association of Realtors in Chicago. And now real estate clients who’ve been scammed are fighting back, seeking recovery of funds through the courts and turning to an FBI weapon that has been little known to the general public: the “Financial Fraud Kill Chain.”

The bureau says that it may be able to stop the transfer and recover consumers’ funds if the wire transfer amount is $50,000 or more, the bank transfer is sent internationally, the bank issues a recall notice and the FBI is informed of the details within 72 hours. In the case of the Denver couple, lawyer Ian T. Hicks is suing the title agency, real estate agent and mortgage lender on behalf of the Denver home purchasers for negligence and other alleged misdeeds. He is also suing the bank that transferred the money for not reporting the fraud to the FBI quickly enough to initiate a Kill Chain effort to get back the money.

So what does this surge in real estate wire fraud mean to you? If you plan to go to settlement on a house, be on alert. Red flag any closing or wiring instructions sent to you via email, especially if they involve last-minute changes to previous instructions. Verify by phone or in person with settlement personnel that they sent the instructions and that they are correct. If you are victimized, call the local field office of the FBI immediately and visit www.ic3.gov, the bureau’s internet complaint center.

Credit: Kenneth R. Harney, Chicago Tribune

Leominster Office voted Best Bank in Leominster!

We’re thrilled our Leominster Office was voted Best Bank in Leominster by Market Surveys of America! Thank you for this recognition. Everything we do is powered by our commitment to community, customers and employees. Without you, there would be no us. Thank you for allowing us to serve you!