Philip Metz was scammed out of $2,840.
What happened to him is what security experts call a victim-assisted crime. These cover a host of frauds, but at the heart of them all is an impostor scam, when a scammer poses as a bank or government or law enforcement employee, tricking the consumer into taking actions that result in financial loss.
The consumer unwittingly helps the scammer.
Americans lost more than $1.6 billion to impostor scams in the first three quarters of 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That’s up from the $1.2 billion consumers lost to these types of frauds in 2020, the FTC said.
The median loss in 2021 was $1,000 per person, he said.
It’s nearly impossible to catch the bad guys because in most cases there’s no paper trail to follow. It was the victim who took the action that led to the loss.
Back to what happened in Metz.
On November 15, he received a text message that appeared to be from his bank, Wells Fargo, saying that there were two unauthorized debit card transactions on his account and that he should call the number listed in the text message.
Knowing about scams by imposters, Metz said he called his debit card number instead.
He spoke to a representative about the disputed transactions, for $340 and $109, at a Walmart and a Target in San Francisco.
The call was disconnected, but Metz said the representative called him back immediately from what appeared to be the legitimate Wells Fargo number. We now know the number was spoofed.
“(She) notified me of two pending Zelle payments in my account, which I immediately disputed, in the amounts of $1,860 and $980,” the Phillipsburg man said.
Zelle is a service that transfers money between two parties, similar to apps like Venmo and CashApp.
Metz, who said he had never used Zelle before, said the rep told him she couldn’t stop pending transactions because Zelle was a third-party provider. A refund would take up to 10 business days.
That would leave his account in the negative.
But the representative had an idea.
Metz said he thought he was talking to a bank clerk, so he followed her instructions.
“She asked me to go to the Zelle tab and the profile area,” he said, and he saw her correct email address but someone else’s name.
The rep told him to delete his email address because it was compromised, then replace it with his phone number. He said he never entered a bank account or routing number, nor did he give her a two-factor authentication code.
She asked him to use Zelle to send herself $1,860 and $980, which she said would essentially reverse the transactions.
Metz said he never looked under the account information tab, which he said would have shown him a bank account placed there by the scammer.
“Hindsight being 20/20, I see how stupid this sounds now, but I was following the verified bank clerk’s instructions and was convinced she had my best interests in mind,” said he declared. “Obviously that was wrong.”
And of course the money was gone.
In retrospect, Metz said he should have figured it out. But that’s the thing: scammers are sophisticated, and when they convince you that you need to act to not lose money, emotion and worry can get the better of anyone.
And in that case, because Metz said he called the number on his card and not the one on the text, he thought he’d be safe. It was the callback from the scammer, who had his phone number from that initial text, who got it.
He filed a police report and reported the transaction to Wells Fargo.
Metz said reps insisted he was scammed. Metz asked to hear the recording of his appeal. The bank verified that there was a 260-second call, but no record of the second longer call from the Zelle transaction. He refused to share them, he said.
“The bank was quick to point out that I processed these transactions voluntarily and therefore the $2,840 would not be refunded,” he said.
He asked Bamboozled for help.
REQUEST AN OPINION
After reviewing Metz’s history, we asked Wells Fargo to take a look.
The bank agreed to investigate the matter and shortly thereafter Metz received a phone call.
“Wells Fargo’s final position from their investigation is that while I was calling their customer service line, I received an incoming call from the scammer, who spoofed Wells Fargo’s phone number,” a said Metz. “Therefore, I have never spoken to a verified Wells Fargo employee and therefore Wells Fargo is justified in not refunding the stolen funds.”
Metz pressed the rep, asking to hear the recording of his call, or at least see a transcript. The representative said the calls were “confidential”, he said.
Instead, Wells offered to reimburse half of Metz’s loss.
“I am deeply disappointed with the outcome, however, I have determined that recovering some of the stolen funds is better than parting with the full amount,” Metz said.
Still, he kept asking Wells to hear the call. Then something changed.
“Wells Fargo has decided to return the full amount deducted from my account and close the case on their end,” Metz said.
We asked Wells Fargo to explain what happened.
He said he couldn’t speak to the details of Metz’s case for confidentiality reasons.
But he offered some advice on how to avoid scams. You can find out more at the bank’s Online Security Center.
If you ever receive an SMS asking you to verify a debit, ignore it. Instead, call the number on your card. If your call is disconnected or you get another call from someone claiming to be your bank, remember that scammers can spoof numbers to make it look like they’re from the bank. Hang up and again call the number on your card.
Do not allow anyone to use scare tactics to trick you into making moves in your account that you are unsure of. If someone is threatening you or urging you to act quickly, that’s a red flag.
We’re glad it’s been resolved in favor of Metz, but most cases like this won’t end in a positive outcome. So please educate yourself and your loved ones so this never happens to you.
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Karin Price Mueller can be reached at KPriceMueller@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KPMueller.