US banks warn customers to be alert against imitators who seek digital access codes


Banks are warning customers about a scheme involving Zelle digital payments and people posing as bank representatives. — Dreamstime/TNS

Margie Morgan was recently scammed out of US$2,000 (RM8,405) in a scheme involving Zelle digital payments and a woman who posed as a representative of Wells Fargo.

Morgan, a food entrepreneur in Edina, Minnesota, fell victim to the scam because it was a new form of phishing, the practice of sending fraudulent communications that look real. It began as a text message to Morgan’s phone that appeared to be from Wells Fargo, but ultimately wasn’t.

“I’m embarrassed at myself because I thought I was smarter than this,” she said.

The texts asked Morgan if she had authorised money transfers from her account. Morgan hit “no” and immediately received a call from a woman who portrayed herself as a Wells Fargo representative.

Morgan said she didn’t think much about it because she received legitimate phone calls from the bank and American Express in the past asking about fraudulent activity.

The woman told Morgan that to recover the unauthorised transactions, Morgan would need to make reverse transfers to herself via Zelle. She followed the woman’s directions, which involved using a PIN the scammer gave her. But the money flowed out of her account, not into it.

Morgan, 57, learned later from an actual Wells Fargo representative that she’d been duped out of US$3,000 (RM12,607). Wells Fargo was able to recover one US$1,000 (RM4,202) transfer but not a second transfer for US$2,000 (RM8,405), which had been processed, Morgan said.

“I’ve been beside myself because I started a small business last year and US$2,000 (RM8,405) cleaned me out,” she said.

Wells Fargo spokesman Kevin Friedlander said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of Morgan’s case, citing customer privacy and confidentiality.

Zelle is an immediate form of payment and scammers who receive payments from victims typically withdraw the funds from the receiving financial institution immediately, making recovery difficult, Friedlander said.

“We will continue to work with other financial institutions and law enforcement in an effort to track down suspects and attempt to recover funds for our customers,” Friedlander said.

On its website, Zelle draws a distinction between fraud and scams, saying a scam happens when a customer is “knowingly involved”.

“Even if you were tricked or persuaded into authorising a payment for a good or service someone said they were going to provide, but they didn’t fulfill it, this would be considered a scam,” Zelle warns. As a result, it tells customers they may not be able to get their money back.

Wells Fargo told Morgan in writing that it asked the receiving financial institution to return her money. She said the bank added there was no guarantee that would happen.

Customers at other banks are reporting similar scams. And on its website, Wells Fargo describes how such “bank imposter” scams unfold. The scammer contacts a person pretending to be someone from a bank and they often know some personal information, likely from social media, public records or a data breach.

“Typically, they say that there is suspicious activity on your account and that to stop it you will need to provide an access code from a text or e-mail,” the Wells Fargo description said. “They may also ask for other information, such as a PIN or your username and password. Other times, you are told to send money to yourself to ‘reverse’ the payment.”

Friedlander noted that Wells Fargo will not contact customers and ask them to send money to themselves or anyone else to prevent or stop fraud on their account.

Wells Fargo warns customers not to share an access code, PIN or password with anyone who requests it. Wells Fargo said it only sends a code when prompted by an action a customer initiated, such as signing on to online banking or sending money.

Wells Fargo said it does not ask customers to send money to anyone, to “reverse a transfer”, “receive a refund” or anything similar. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service

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