Life update from Lauren

We bought a house!!! To understand how monumental this news is you must keep reading. I share the following story not to receive any measure of sympathy or to draw attention to how Ryan and I respond in times of great stress but only for this reason…to proclaim the goodness of Christ so that he may be glorified!

As many of you already know we sold our home in Indiana, PA back in January and relocated to Maryland for Ryan to accept a call as Senior Pastor at a church. The selling of our home and subsequent move happened so quickly that we planned to live with my parents temporarily as we looked for a home. All of our belongings are in storage except for the bare essentials we use day to day. What we anticipated would be a 1-2 month house search turned into 7. COVID changed everybody’s life in a instant including ours by halting the housing market to a near standstill. Homes that did come on the market often sold before we could schedule a time to see them or quickly went over our price range due to bidding wars. At one point Ryan and I considered purchasing a tiny home and saving money to build down the road but even that led to a lot of red tape and dead ends.

So fast forward to July (nearly seven months of house searching and living with my generous parents later)…we finally found a home that we loved and put an offer on and it was ACCEPTED! The house had another offer on it as well so the fact that ours was accepted felt like a miracle.

Being that this home was originally built in the late 1800’s we were concerned that there might be some major issues in the home inspections but everything moved along smoothly. What an answer to prayer. We were cleared to close on the house Friday, July 24th!

Friday morning we were scheduled to do the final walkthrough of the house with our realtor and then proceed to the attorneys office to sign the closing papers. As we were driving to the house we got an email from our settlement firm that they had not received our down payment funds. Through God’s provision our down payment amount was substantial so the idea of it being temporarily missing was unnerving to say the least. I replied that Ryan transferred the funds by electronic wire the day before at 1:30pm as per the email instructions sent to us by their office. Soon after we received a call from our realtor telling us not to panic but that our down payment funds were never received by our closing attorney’s office and they were looking into the issue further. Right after that our attorney calls, confirms for us that the funds indeed were never received, that they suspected the wiring instructions were sent to us fraudulently and to “pull the car over right away, call our bank to recall the funds and have them freeze the fraudulent account the money was sent into in hopes that we could reclaim some of our money if any at all…because minutes matter in these instances.” (Insert rush of anxiety feeling). 

Within the span of 5 minutes Ryan and I went from thinking there must be some sort of mixup to realizing that we had just been the victims of real estate wire fraud. One of the fastest growing cyber crimes in the US currently.

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 home buyer to wire the funds needed to close — often hundreds of thousands of dollars, 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.

Before Friday we had never heard of this particular form of cyber-crime. We came to find out there were a few flukey things that happened to perfectly set the stage for this fraud in our case. One of the reasons our offer was attractive to the sellers was because we could do a quick close since our offer was not contingent on the sale of our home. Ryan and I were constantly getting emails from our realtor, settlement broker, inspection company, and attorneys office to keep everything on schedule for closing. Additionally, the actual wiring instructions from our settlement company were incorrectly mailed to an old address without our knowing so we had no reason to doubt that the emailed instructions were legitimate. The scammer had assumed the identity of our attorney, knew our closing date, and all the information about our settlement to make it very convincing.

Right after we got the call from our attorney we pulled up to the house, called our bank to inform them on what was happening and then stopped to pray together. We then spent the next 5 hours desperately calling back and forth between our bank and the bank housing the fraudulent account. We were met with automated system after automated system. Getting actual people on the phone was near impossible. We were working with a fraud agent from our bank to issue a fraud reclaim wire and a hold harmless form in order to tag the funds as fraudulent and get them returned to us. We discovered that the receiving bank was in Rhode Island (thankfully not overseas) but the bank would not confirm at all if they had frozen the account or even if our funds were still there. 

Around 10am I sent a quick text to my mom telling her what was going on and asking her to pray. It felt like we were living in a nightmare. I had already started to get texts from friends and family congratulating us on our closing and I could not muster any answers. I knew my mom would inform the other members of my family to pray also. During this time I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor due to the stress my body was feeling while Ryan and Terry (our realtor) were fiercely making phone calls. I filed a report with the FBI’s cyber crime center and also called their tip line to report what had happened. Meanwhile I silently prayed to thank Jesus that I was filing a cyber crime form and not the option below, a child abduction report. Both crimes have a magical 24 hour window that once lapsed, greatly diminishes the hopes of any recovery. I knew in my heart that at the end of the day this was just money and money comes and goes. The FBI took the information but could make no promises for retrieving anything or returning our call. We also found out around the same time that fraudulent wire transfers are not backed by FDIC insurance since Ryan had signed for the transfer even though he was under the impression it was going to our settlement company. If the money was lost there was no insurance money to fall back on.

Ryan had been handling the stress so well all morning but at one point around noon I looked up at him pacing back and forth and noticed his body demeanor change. I could physically see his body collapsing from the weight of the stress and responsibility since he was the one that had responded to the emails and sent the wire. As he laid onto the floor next to me I fervently prayed over him. I prayed that God would lift the burden from him, release him from the anxiety and responsibility…God knew this was going to happen all along and HE allowed it and was STILL in control. I prayed that our marriage would be unwavering and grow even stronger in spite of this setback and that Ryan would feel love and forgiveness pour over him. 

Around 3pm we were at a standstill. 24+ hours had lapsed since sending the wire transfer, the receiving bank of the wire still refused to tell us if there were any funds left in the account or if it was even frozen. It was Friday afternoon and the banks would be closing soon. We had done everything we could on our end but yet it felt like we were just grasping at vapors all day…unable to get any concrete answers. 

As we drove back to my parents house, we both felt like the funds were gone forever, and in the process of losing the money, we had lost the house as well. Despite that, we knew and needed to proclaim that God was still good even in our grief and in the unknowns of our situation.

That evening Ryan and I prayed together and read scripture out loud to one another. Reading the Bible and praying was the only thing that brought us any comfort. It truly sustained us in a way like never before. We did not want to discuss what had happened with family…it felt like reliving the trauma. If anyone asked if they could do anything for us, I asked them to pray for us. We needed to hear from God and we needed his strength to sustain us and peace to comfort us so we could rest. Ryan and I both felt an urgency from the Lord not to spend time researching the crime, hashing out blame, or formulating a plan B. There was no plan B…our minds and hearts could not even formulate one if we tried. We had to wait on God to act. It was evident to us he had a plan and was caring for us but that is all we knew. We had to trust and take him at his word that as Psalms 34:17-19 says…

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. 

The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.

God spoke to me so much through his written word. Psalms 37, the book of Job, and Genesis 22 – when Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice Issac – the gifted son and also the person God would use to fulfill a promise to multiply Abraham’s descendants…eventually leading to Jesus himself. Abraham had to trust that God was worth loving and trusting more than the gifts he chooses to bestow. Psalms 73 was hugely impactful as well. The psalmist expresses his disdain for the way in which it seems like the wicked always prosper in this world and the unfairness of it all UNTIL he enters the sanctuary of God and he understands their final destiny. The Psalms writes, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.”

I remember at some point on Saturday telling Ryan that I didn’t feel any less loved by God because of our circumstances. In fact I felt more loved because he promises to be near to the afflicted and broken-hearted throughout Scripture and I felt so near to him. When you give God your life, all your hopes and dreams, he gives you the gift of himself. I felt his presence in a tangible way that almost felt like a glimpse of heaven on earth.

God was testing our hearts. I am not a very materialistic person…that is not a big struggle of mine. But I do desire financial security a lot. And in the past I have relied on Ryan to provide me with a sense of emotional security that everything will be okay as well. In an instant I saw both of those things dissolve. The money that would secure a new home for us…gone. And by no way was it right for me to rely on Ryan this time for emotional encouragement. They would only be empty words anyway because he does not know the future. The most he could have done was point me to Christ. I needed to find my security in God himself. 

I spent my time praying and reading scripture. And when my mind would wonder and my spirit would start to give in to deep despair I would recite Scripture or sing worship songs to combat it. A battle was raging within me and the only way to fight it was with the word of God.

On Sunday night at 9:30 Ryan got a phone call from our fraud agent apologizing for the late call but asking for a couple minutes of his time. Someone had given her a contact of another fraud agent that used to work at our bank but now works at the bank that received our money and was willing to talk to us. While on the phone he confirmed that the account had been frozen as instructed and ALL of our money was still in the account. Not a cent was missing. Both fraud agents said that never happens. At best they can reclaim some of the money before it is withdrawn but never all of it. When we heard the news that the money was all there we were as surprised and in disbelief as we were when it went missing in the first place. It was a miracle. We were certain that God would provide for our needs in some way but in no way were we expecting the money to be untouched. 

Early Monday morning our fraud agent called to tell us that the account our money was put into was referred to as a “money mule account.” It is when a hacker uses someone else’s account to temporarily house money making themselves harder to track. They keep moving the money from account to account until they can safely retrieve it (often overseas). In this case the account holder was made to believe they were getting a life changing job opportunity with an advancement of pay, hiring bonus and paid moving expenses. By Monday morning the banks and the FBI had notified the account holder that the funds were fraudulent so the money was returned to us within 24 hours with no dispute and on Wednesday we were cleared to close on our house…this time with a cashiers check lol. Thankfully the couple we bought our house from were willing to stick it out with us until we knew more so the house deal did not fall through. Praise be to God! 

We have been singing God’s praises ever since! It is hard to process all that happened over the past couple weeks and that at the end of it we have a house. A house that will always and forever feel like a blessing from God…a true testament to his goodness and provision. We are taking the month of August to give it some needed renovations before we fully move-in but it is a blessing nonetheless. If we had not gone through this experience we would have been robbed from the miracle we got to witness Christ do in our hearts.

Matthew 6:19-21

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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