Beware of scammers pretending to be from your bank stealing from you using Zelle

There’s this high school librarian driving down the road, and her cell phone rings.

Paige Portele, the librarian at Garland ISD, looks at her phone. Caller ID says the call is from his bank, Wells Fargo. She answers.

The man knows her name, cell phone number, school email address, and checking and savings account numbers. He even says he knows how much is in each account.

He calls her to inform her that she is the victim of a theft during which $1,500 was taken from her checking account.

She pulls the car off the road so she can concentrate. He says he is calling her to help her get her money back. But the only way to do that is for her to send money back to herself through the bank using the Zelle payment app.

To verify his identity, he suggests that he look at the phone number on the back of his bank card and see that it matches the number on the caller ID. It does. She sends $1,500.

Before The Watchdog continues, know that scammers posing as bankers using Zelle to steal is nothing new. Zelle is a quick payment app (I call it Venmo for adults) owned by major banks, including Wells Fargo. Fraud has been a problem for years.

The problem is so pervasive that federal regulators are working on new rules to better protect victims of this type of crime. Sometimes the banks respond with such a bad attitude, so sad.

The man who called the librarian wasn’t from Wells Fargo. Yet somehow he knew some of her personal information. As for using caller ID to look like they were calling from the bank, this is called caller ID spoofing and it can be done through software available.

This story contains a very important lesson that should help you protect your money.

But first, let’s get back to the story of what’s called the me-to-me scam because you’re asked to send money to help catch a scammer. Absurd, I know, but it works.

Suspicious, Paige calls Wells Fargo to check out the story, but she’s put on hold.

The scammer calls him. This time, it is a woman who assures him that she is part of Wells Fargo’s fraud department.

Imagine Paige on her cell phone going from call to call. She tries to talk to a human at her real bank number.

“I’m screaming into the phone – ‘scam, scam, agent, banker’.”

Switching between the two calls, she no longer knows which is the real banker. Then she makes a mistake that will haunt her.

At the scammer’s urgent suggestion, she sends another $2,000, this time from her savings.

The thing with Zelle is that once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is no waiting time like with a check. “We are unable to stop or reverse funds,” Wells Fargo wrote to him later.

I noticed while looking at the Zelle website that the focus is on using the app to transfer money to family and friends. “Choose someone you trust to pay,” he says. “Send money to almost anyone you know and trust.”

The watchdog contacted Wells Fargo and Zelle.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Allison Vail said: “When Ms. Portele contacted us about the application she received, our representatives advised her that she was likely being contacted by scammers and attempted to convince her not to send additional funds.”

Paige says that’s not how she remembers it. She told me about the long waits she had to try to reach a genuine bank employee who could help her.

“It’s heartbreaking when someone is scammed, and it’s a priority for us to help people avoid scams,” the bank’s spokesperson said.

She continued, “We are actively working on raising awareness to prevent these incidents. We want to make sure everyone is aware that criminals can spoof a caller ID number so that it appears as if a call or text is from a business or government agency.

Zelle declined to comment on Paige’s setbacks, citing “security and privacy concerns” and referred me to Wells Fargo.

The good news is that the Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal banking regulators are “preparing to push banks to refund more customers who were victims of alleged scams on Zelle and other money transfer services.”

Paige is embarrassed but still fighting to get her money back. “I teach kids how to know what’s real and what’s not,” she says. Lesson learned here.

A police detective who investigated this told her not to feel bad. “These crooks are good,” the detective said.

OK, I promised a super important lesson that is so basic but can protect your money. It’s here.

When your bank calls you, assume it’s a fake. You don’t have to commit yourself in any way. Hang up and call the bank using the phone number on your bill or on your bank card.

The days of a company calling out of the blue to help you are almost over. It’s so 20th century. In modern times, you have to assume the worst. What a horrible way to live for all of us.

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The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ top column writing award. The contest judge called his winning works “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”

Read his winning columns:

* Assist the widow of Officer JD Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, to be buried next to her late husband

* Help a waitress injured by an unscrupulous used car dealer