Money Blindness, Don't Catch it
Being a banker, I see a lot of situations about money. Some of it is sad, but sometimes you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief. Sometimes I see a customer so invested in a dream or scam, they become money blind to the truth. This is one of those stories.
One of the various roles I oversee in banking is something called compliance. Compliance simply means the bank is following federal banking regulations in offering product and services to the public. One of the regulations is called the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), which requires the bank to identify, report, and sometimes stop suspicious activity that has to do with money laundering, terrorism, tax evasion and also to protect the customers from fraud.
Set the Stage
Banks have various reports to monitor activity and one of those reports showed a WalmartⓇ electronic withdrawal for over $4,500 out of a new account from California, but the transaction was based from a store in Maryland. You can see why this transaction was flagged for review.
Large electronic withdrawal
Occured opposite end of country from the customer’s home address.
I emailed the customer to contact me at her convenience concerning account activity and that the account was blocked until we spoke. Within 45 minutes she called my office line. I immediately felt better because my phone trace ID (yes, banks have those) showed she was calling from a motel in Maryland. This meant she was actually in MD and was probably the one who conducted the transaction at WalmartⓇ. She could still be getting scammed though and that was my primary concern. After asking her a series identity questions, I was satisfied she was the actual customer and she conducted the transaction. The women seemed bright, well spoken, and assured me the transaction was legitimate. This made me feel better too because usually the people who get scammed are usually vulnerable because of age, education, or some other contributing factor. She was very concerned about getting the account unblocked because she was expecting a $30,000 wire from her brother in-law that week. At this point, I was thought everything was OK.
This is where it fell apart
I was about to settle the inquiry and end the conversation when I asked one final question about the transaction. I asked, out of curiosity, what she was buying at WalmartⓇ for $4,500. She told me it was a money transfer to the FBI account at WalmartⓇ! That changed the conversation immediately, because I know the FBI doesn’t have an account at WalmartⓇ.
After asking a series of additional questions, the woman reluctantly gave up the information that she was contacted via email from the Director of the FBI for a past tax issue concerning her dead husband. He owed $35,000 in past due tax payments and the FBI was holding $80,000 of his confiscated money until it was paid. This woman was being told to pay the $35,000 and she’d get the $80,000. I tried to explain to the woman this was a scam, after all, if the “FBI” had $80,000 and was trying to collect $35,000 – why wouldn’t they just send her a check for the difference? Why wouldn’t it be the IRS in the first place? She said it was complicated secret deal.
The situation just kept getting more bizarre!
I asked for the emails and she sent them to me. There were so many spelling and grammatical errors it was laughable. They were just like many others I had seen, only with this woman’s name on the top. I asked the women if she thought the director of the FBI would send such a terrible email and she didn’t seemed phased by it.
Then I asked her why she flew from CA to MD and she told me it was to resolve it. I guess a CA Walmart wouldn’t work. On the fake emails were the FBI’s main office in DC, so I told the woman to simply visit the office to ask if everything was legitimate. She told me the cab ride would be over $150 and she couldn’t afford it. She could afford to take a plane from CA to MD to complete a $4,500 WalmartⓇ transfer, but she couldn’t afford a $150 cab ride to make sure this transaction was legitimate?
She also explained the $30,000 wire from her brother in-law was from him taking a loan on his house to help her out. Again, she was extremely well spoken so it was a conflicting situation that she would be tricked by such an obvious scam. It’s like she was money blind.
Enough is enough!
It finally got to the point that I asked the woman what it would take for her to understand this was a scam. She said “Nothing, I know it’s real.” At that point I told her the account was closed. I couldn’t get back the $4,500 money she lost, but at least I could stop her (or her brother in law) from losing another $30,000. I never heard back from her, but I hope the scam was stopped.
So what are the money lessons to be learned here?
The director of the FBI, or any other government agency, does not contact you by email for money owed.
Verify every situation in which someone is asking you for money. This woman could have easily just called the FBI main office and they would have set her straight.
Never, and I mean never, send an unknown person money through any kind of money transfer service like WalmartⓇ, MoneygramⓇ, or Western UnionⓇ.