Banks, police warn of telephone scams

July 19, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS


The telephone rings and you answer.

"Hello, this is John Doe," the caller says. "I'm from the customer service area of your bank. We've had some problems with your account. Can you verify a few things for me?"

You should beware of such calls, says Stephen Hummel, senior vice president of branch administration, security and compliance at Hagerstown Trust.

Such statements are common opening lines to one of many scams in the area, Hummel said. But common sense and a little knowledge about how financial institutions work can save many headaches and sometimes prevent financial ruin.


Hummel said he's seeing several types of fraud cross his desk including mail, Internet and telephone scams.

"It's everywhere. It's absolutely rampant," he said.

Most times, he'll get a counterfeit check or money order, he'll get a frantic call from someone who's been defrauded or internal system reports will call attention to large amounts of money being drawn from unusual places.

Hummel described three main scams to watch for:

- "You've won!" If you receive a letter - maybe from Canada or Nigeria - saying you've won their lottery, stop and think. Did you buy a ticket?

What usually happens is the scammer will ask the victim to send a check for several thousand dollars to pay for taxes so they can send the winnings. Once the "winning" check comes, it's counterfeit.

- "Hello, Mrs. Jones?" If you get a phone call from the "customer service department of your bank," did they say which bank they're with? Probably not, Hummel says, because they don't know until after you give your bank information.

Hummel said the bank will never call you to ask for your account number or your identifying information such as your social security number, maiden name or birthday.

That con artist is looking for information that identifies your bank and your personal credit information. If you fall for the scam, you can expect to possibly have a depleted bank account, as well as credit cards taken out in your name by someone else.

- "Hello, I'm from Chad ..." Hummel said he's had several fake money orders and checks deposited by unknowing customers who thought they were doing an international favor.

For example, someone on an Internet chat might get a message from someone overseas saying he bought 30 $100 money orders but can't exchange them in his home country.

The person will make contact, give a detailed list of instructions on how to exchange it, telling the victim to keep $500 for himself. The victim gets the packet of money orders by mail, deposits them, writes a check out of his own account for $2,500 and mails or wires it overseas. The money orders are no good, and the victim is out $2,500.

Hagerstown Police Detective George Brandt said there has been a noticeable increase in scam activity over the past year or so, but it's not unique to Hagerstown Trust.

He said that a number of local banks are facing the same problem, but there's little local police can do if the scam is being run from out of state or outside the country.

Brandt's advice is simple. If you get a phone call, mail or e-mail that doesn't make sense, start asking questions.

"Do not send anything out and do not volunteer any personal information" - including Social Security numbers, full names, maiden names, or bank routing or account numbers - "either by phone or by e-mail to anybody," Brandt said.

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