A costly lesson that your email — and money — aren't safe

A Lake Arrowhead man loses $8,600 when hackers use his email account to tell his accountant to transfer funds to a Texas bank.

Think your email, and your money, are safe? Think again.

Earlier this year, the FBI warned that "cyber-criminals are compromising the email accounts of U.S. individuals and businesses" and using the accounts to arrange fraudulent cash transfers.

Lake Arrowhead resident Bernie Williams never saw that warning. Nor did he think anything like this could happen to him.

Now he's $8,629 poorer.

"It's such a sophisticated scam," Williams, 70, said with grudging admiration. "If it wasn't a crime, I'd give the guy an Oscar."

That's not a totally offhand remark. Williams has served as producer, executive producer or associate producer on more than two dozen movies, including "Ragtime," "Daredevil," "Star Trek: Generations" and a little something called "A Clockwork Orange."

Maybe it's fair to say that if Alex and his droogs were around today, they'd be hackers.

Williams told me he received a call from his accountant earlier this month with some questions about a wire transfer to a Texas bank that Williams had instructed him by email to make.

"I said I never asked for a wire transfer," he recalled. "My accountant said that I had asked for the transfer and even confirmed it in a separate email."

Turned out that not only had someone gained access to Williams' Gmail account, the hacker also had perused enough of Williams' correspondence to figure out who his accountant was and how to tailor an email that would seem as if Williams had written it, including references to past conversations.

The hacker apparently kept such a close enough watch on Williams' account that he or she was able to intercept replies from the accountant and delete them before Williams could see them.

"Obviously, this person was reading all my emails," Williams said. "They were in my life."

Andrea Freund, a Google spokeswoman, said the company had seen "nothing unusual" lately in terms of security breaches involving Gmail.

The hacker had requested a wire transfer of $8,629 from Williams' account at City National Bank in Encino to an account at First Convenience Bank in Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Yet when Williams contacted first his own bank and then the Texas bank, he was told there was nothing anyone could do. The wire transfer was legitimate in their eyes — it was the accountant, after all, who'd been duped. So that was that.

Williams reported the theft to the FBI and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. But he came away with the impression that he shouldn't hold his breath waiting for the money to be recovered.

"As far as everyone is concerned," he said, "I've lost it. It's gone."

Cary Walker, a City National spokesman, confirmed that likelihood.

"Unfortunately, in this case, we received the information too late and weren't able to stop the funds from leaving the account in time," he said.

No one at First Convenience Bank could be reached for comment.