A “phishing” email fraud that tricked an employee into making an incorrect bank transfer cost the Botanica condominium in Key Biscayne $105,000, according to a police report. The president of the condominium fired a top manager Friday and called a meeting to discuss whether the building’s 293 unit owners will have to cover the loss.
The fund transfer was part of a regular monthly payment that is made from the Botanica condominium to the complex’s master association for its share of the luxury complex’s upkeep. According to the police report, an October invoice from the Key Colony HOA to Botanica came from a different, but very similar-looking email address.
“It’s still an active investigation,” said Key Biscayne Police Chief Frank Sousa. Phishing frauds aim to trick victims into revealing information or making transfers by impersonating legitimate businesses and individuals. They can appear in email, text messages, and even chats.
Botanica President Matt Bramson said he was alerted when the Homeowners’ Association notified him it had not received payment in their regular account in late December.
According to Bramson, the phishing email looked almost identical to email correspondence Botanica regularly gets from Key Colony. But on closer inspection, the “fake” email had an “r” in the address that is different from the proper address. The phony email claimed the next payment needed to be made to a different account, because the old one was being audited.
“It was very clever,” said Bramson, referring to the way the fake email was formatted to look like it was coming from the HOA. “Botanica was the victim of a crime.”
Still, he said, the board of directors agreed that building manager Antonio Rodriguez be terminated for several performance and skill set issues. Bramson was careful to note that phishing frauds can and do happen widely, and he was not assigning blame, but he said the incident was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in light of other problems.
In a letter to owners Friday, he thanked Rodriguez for his service and said a new manager would be in place Monday.
Rodriguez declined to comment.
The building’s 293 unit owners may be asked to cover a portion of the loss with a special assessment, and a meeting to discuss payment was scheduled for Feb. 2. Bramson said the Association has cyber crime insurance but the amount of the coverage may be limited.
The HOA employee whose email was faked, Victor Unda, resigned from Key Colony’s management company at the beginning of the year, just days after the funds were noticed missing. He was adamant that the error lay solely with Botanica and said his leaving the HOA position was purely coincidence.
“That is insulting,” Unda said. “Before I left, I told them I could help.” He said the fake email exchange should have been spotted by the Botanica staff and noted the style of writing was clearly very different from his. “I use professional language,” he said. “Whoever did it had access” to management systems, he said. As a Botanica resident, Unda would be impacted by any special assessment as well.
It’s not the first successful phishing attempt at the seaside complex of more than 1,100 units. In 2019, the HOA’s systems were compromised and residents started receiving emails that appeared to come from association email accounts. The HOA sent warning notices to residents not to click emails.
Key Biscaye’s government offices have also been hit in the past by hackers. Also in 2019, systems were down for days until the Village contracted with a cybersecurity firm. The village neither confirmed nor denied that it paid ransom after its files had been locked. Phishing hacks can lead to follow-up ransomware attacks.
Key Colony President David McDanal declined to answer questions on whether the missing funds would put any strain on the master Association’s finances. He did say the HOA has cybersecurity systems in place after the 2019 incident but would not go into details.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.