En español | An 84-year-old woman in Palm Beach County, Florida, got an odd phone call. The caller gave her name as “Ashley” and said she worked for Wells Fargo & Company.
Ashley was an alias. And she was no bank employee. She was a con woman with a criminal past that landed her in state prisons.
Yet when the caller purported there had been fraudulent charges on one of the 84-year-old woman's bank cards, she believed her.
According to a court affidavit, the victim even gave the caller her PIN number, an identifier used to validate electronic transactions such as ATM withdrawals and debit-card purchases.
She also gave Ashley her and her spouse's Social Security numbers. And when someone later showed up at her door masquerading as a bank employee, the victim handed over two debit cards and two credit cards, having been led to believe that replacements would be personally delivered.
Such crimes have menaced more than 40 seniors in South Florida since 2016 and resulted in more than $1 million in losses, according to Palm Beach County's top prosecutor, who says an investigation, dubbed Operation Golden Years, remains ongoing.
"The whole thing was a crazy nightmare,” the 84-year-old woman tells AARP, recalling the crimes from this past March.
The day she handed over the cards, the crooks acted fast. In less than 30 minutes, eight money orders with a face value totaling $3,695 were purchased at two Publix grocery stores, according to the court affidavit. The money orders ranged in value from $200 to $500.
Meanwhile, there were two ATM withdrawals of $300 each at a Wells Fargo bank, bringing the total fraud to $4,295, not counting fees.
The alleged offender, a 40-year-old woman from Fort Lauderdale, was arrested last April and is being held on numerous felony counts. She has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court Nov. 20. Three alleged accomplices also are in custody; a fourth was charged and is out on bond, authorities say.
Talking about the crime spree, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg says: “In our line of work, we see brazen behavior every day, but we are particularly sensitive to this type of behavior when it targets senior citizens."
A financial services professional familiar with the string of bank-impostor frauds was blunter, observing: “It's horrible, and these people are heartless."
Aronberg urges people to be skeptical when someone calls and claims they are from your bank. Hang up and call the bank at a phone number you know is correct — or have a loved one call — to verify the representations, he says.
Customer-service phone numbers for credit and debit cards are printed on the back of your cards.
The prosecutor echoes what a Wells Fargo manager says: When a bank card is compromised, no one will come to your door to retrieve it.
"In my 18 years in banking, I've never seen someone going to someone's house to pick up a card,” says E.J. Cabrera, a regional services manager for Wells Fargo in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Preventing bank fraud
Tips from a Wells Fargo & Company official:
- Closely monitor your financial accounts.
- Sit down with a branch banker to discuss fraud prevention. You might want to set up text or email alerts to learn when your card is used. Alerts can be arranged for all transactions or even just for those withdrawals higher than a specified amount.
- Never disclose a PIN number to anyone. A bank employee would never ask you to state the number to authenticate your identity.
"We instruct our customers to destroy their card when it's compromised,” says Cabrera, whose duties include fraud prevention. “It's not necessary for us to retrieve the physical card at that point."
The caution to disregard appeals for personal financial information should be heeded whether the request arises in a phone call, fax or email, says the Florida Bankers Association. Ignore them “no matter how official” they seem, the trade group says.
The 84-year-old woman wasn't alone in Palm Beach County. Others alleged to have been defrauded by Ashley include an 87-year-old woman in Boca Raton and, in cases in Boynton Beach, an 88-year-old man (a retired attorney) and a 92-year-old woman.
Inside the con
There's a reason why people can be so trusting: Even before the bad actors pick up the phone, they may have information about their targets. They may know dates of birth, the last four digits of Social Security numbers and even their victims’ recent, valid card transactions. The information may be gleaned from data breaches or purchased on the dark web, where criminals buy and sell data.
Fraudsters also hit up banks, pretending to be customers so they can wheedle out information about recent transactions, the prosecutor says.
With that information, they can fool a person by inventing a bogus transaction — $970 at Walmart or $5.72 at a gas station, for example — to persuade them an illegitimate charge has occurred, says a fraud investigator at another big bank.
Cabrera says that crooks steal from mailboxes and break into vehicles to grab your financial and personal data; in a coastal state like his, beachgoers and tourists can leave checkbooks or other valuables in cars.
According to Aronberg, offenders will try “by hook or by crook” to get to your front door to get their hands on your card, even in gated communities, where they may tailgate an entering car — or walk around barriers.
Aronberg urges people who have been scammed to report their cases to local police. “Victims need to speak up, because the scammers depend on victims’ silence,” he says.
The people betrayed in the Operation Golden Years case are not keeping quiet. “We've been pleased by the level of cooperation of victims,” Aronberg says. “It's a real testament to their will to see justice done."
Under the law, your liability for the unauthorized use of a credit card tops out at $50, but can be higher if it's a debit card and you didn't promptly report the loss or theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The 84-year-old Palm Beach County woman says even though her bank made up for the $4,295 in fraudulent transactions, the crimes were a “very unpleasant experience."
"It caused me a lot of hassle,” she says, “but eventually, we got it straightened out. I had to get all new cards and report it to the credit bureaus and so forth. I couldn't believe that I fell for it."
That bad dream has led to good advice. “Don't fall for fraud,” she warns. “Don't take somebody's word for it, without checking it out."