Banks, stores look out for scams

Local employees being trained to recognize common signs of fraud, victimization

When a customer walks into a local bank looking to wire money overseas, employees are immediately on the alert.

While sending money to someone overseas via a wire transfer is completely legal, it also can be a sign that someone may have been duped by a scammer, as people making the requests for money often do so from outside the U.S. to avoid law enforcement. Employees at banks in Franklin and Greenwood have been trained on how to recognize common signs that someone is being victimized and take steps to prevent the fraudulent payments from being sent.

Sometimes that means doing online research to show a customer that the situation they are in is actually a common scam. In other circumstances, that can mean even refusing to send a payment if a bank is certain that the money is going to a scammer.

This year, victims of scams in Johnson County have included a man who sent $6,000 oversees to a woman claiming she was in the U.S. Air Force and needed assistance cashing an inheritance check, a woman who lost $3,500 after attempting to purchase two vehicles online, a woman who was tricked into sending $4,500 worth of gift cards to a caller pretending to be with the IRS, and a woman who purchased $1,000 in gift cards after a man called and told her that money was needed to bond her grandson out of jail.

Last month, a man sent $60,000 in a scam to a woman he had begun dating online.

Employees at Old National Bank in Greenwood have learned to be constantly vigilant about situations where a customer might have been tricked into sending their money to a scammer, said Nicol Spradlin, the retail center manager. They’ll keep an eye out for customers that might be acting differently than normal or are trying to wire large amounts money to someone overseas or who they haven’t sent money to before, she said.

Scammers can offer promises of a reward for sending the money, such lottery winnings or a share of an inheritance, or threaten punishment, such as claiming they are with the IRS and are owed money or that a child or grandchild is in jail and the money must be sent immediately to bail them out.

“We see some type of fraud on a daily basis,” she said. “Email fraud, wire fraud, counterfeit bills, someone trying to pass a fraudulent check and elderly people being taken advantage of.”

Signs that someone might be a victim of a scam include sending money oversees when they haven’t previously done so, a large withdrawal or wire transfers to someone they’ve not sent money to before, Spradlin said.

“The stories vary, but have the same feeling, that something doesn’t feel right about it,” Spradlin said.”And almost always it isn’t something right; it’s someone trying to lure them into sending them money.”

When a bank employee suspects that someone might be falling for a scam, they’ll try to ask for more information about the situation, such as what the transaction is for and steps the customer has taken to make sure it is legitimate, said Dave Coffey, the executive vice president of Franklin-based Mutual Savings Bank.

The questions aren’t intended to be intrusive, but are meant to help a customer think through whether they’ve done enough of their own research to trust the person they are sending the money to, he said.

“If we have a customer come in wanting to wire money or get a check to send oversees, we can Google the situation and find out to show the customer that look, this is actually a known scam that people have lost a lot of money to,” said Kellie Gordan, the cyber security officer for Mutual Savings Bank.

Building relationships with their customers is essential, because it gives employees the ability recognize when something might be going on that is out of the ordinary and it helps them step in and provide advice that could help someone avoid being the victim of a scam, Coffey said.

In the majority of cases, having those conversations with a customer is often enough to help them avoid sending the money, he said.

At Old National Bank, if an employee believes a customer is being tricked into wiring money to a scammer, the bank can refuse to carry out the transaction, Spradlin said.

In situations where someone is making repeat payments that bank security officials have determined is to a scammer, they can take the rare step of closing an account, she said.

While the bank won’t contact police directly when a scam has taken place, they will encourage customers do so and help them get the information they need to do that, Spradlin said.

Once the money is sent, authorities don’t have any options to retrieve it.

“If you fall for the scam and you do any kind of wire transfer, you can kiss your money goodbye,” Greenwood assistant police chief Matt Fillenwarth said. “The fraud suspect can say they are in Dallas, but once it is in Western Union it is typically withdrawn overseas.”

For local police departments, whose jurisdiction doesn’t cross state lines, let alone national ones, the step that is most often taken for people victimized by these scams is to get them in touch with federal agencies that investigate these types of crimes, he said.

At issue

Here’s some tips from bankers and police about the steps you can take to avoid falling for common scams:

  •  IRS: A scammer will call, claiming that you owe taxes and need to make an immediate payment to avoid being arrested. However, the IRS doesn’t ever call to demand immediate payment or threaten people with arrest. The IRS will first notify you about missed taxes by mail.
  • Lotteries: A scammer will call, claiming that you have won a lottery such as Mega Millions, and will ask for money to be sent to them to cover taxes or fees before the winnings can be transferred. However, no lotteries require upfront payments to get access to your winnings.
  • Jail bonds: A scammer will call, claiming a child or grandchild is in jail. The caller will say that a bail payment is needed immediately. However, police won’t call to request bond payment, and recommend instead to call the relative or jail to check if this call is accurate.
Author photo
Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.