Zelle Scam Threatens Baker’s Dream Business
In part 1 of this podcast, a call from a bank employee impersonator leads Lura to lose all of her savings
After many years in the corporate world, Lura decides to turn her passion for baking into a small business. She secures a loan, perfects her recipes and then, the day after her big launch, her bank calls. They tell her she’s been hacked and helpfully walk her through the steps to recover the funds. When she calls back the bank, though, she’s stunned to learn that it wasn’t her bank who called at all, but an impersonator. Her money is gone. Will her dreams of owning her own business also disappear?
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Lura Ball: They're saying that they are stopping the Zelle transactions. They give me a claim number, and so I think, tragedy averted. I started getting these alerts from my email, saying that I’ve sent money to somebody at Chase. I'm like, what? And so I go into that email, and so I quickly try to grab the money to take it back, and it's already gone.
[00:00:34] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. New person-to-person payment apps – P2P apps - like Venmo and Zelle make it easy for family and friends to pay each other an IOU after splitting lunch…easy to send a kid at college enough money for a special weekend meal. Consumers really like P2P apps, but so do criminals. Because the transfers are nearly instant, and there are no credit card-like consumer protections enforced on P2P, crooks can really take advantage of the system. According to the New York Times, nearly 18 million Americans have been victims of P2P fraud. Today, we’re going to meet one of them. Lura Daniels Ball had recently said goodbye to her husband of nearly 40 years when her family urged her to find something new and positive to focus on, so she set out to pursue a long-delayed dream. Lura is an amazing baker --- she makes sweets for everyone in her life, in her family, in her church … she's always called it her “baking ministry." So after a full life as a professional, a singer, a mom, she set out on her second act and decided to open her own cookie business. And right as she was set to launch, after many, many months of testing and design and more testing a criminal stole all the money she had borrowed to launch Lura’s Kitchen. They stole it by hijacking her Zelle account. And the bank…well, surely her bank would help get her money back, she thought. Let’s learn what happened when Lura opened her kitchen, and her heart, to the world, and criminals stuck their hand in the cookie jar.
[00:02:21] Lura Ball: (sings) "You can change things if you start giving, so why don't you reach out and touch somebody's hand. Make this world a better place if you can."
[00:02:36] Bob: That’s Lura. She’s 66, lives in Los Angeles in the traditionally Black Crenshaw neighborhood. Lura started life in Texas as a singer. But then she met her husband.
[00:02:48] Lura Ball: I met my husband at USC off of our floor. I was a RA, and he was unescorted. He was unescorted on an all-girl's, that was back when, when there was all girl, all male floors. (laugh) Which is not the case now. But he was unescorted on the floor, and he was a roommate of, of a, who ended up being my brother-in-law, of a little scoundrel that had cheated me out of a dollar a couple of months before at a dance. So he was suspect. And I'm like, "Who are you?" "What are you doing on this floor unescorted?" So that's kind of how I met my husband. (laugh)
[00:03:22] Bob: I guess he managed to find his way back to the floor somehow.
[00:03:25] Lura Ball: You know, something, yeah. Something, something clicked that, that, that evening. He was, he was so intelligent and, and well actually he, he came back the, the next night. I had gone to see Diana Ross who is my ultimate, one of my ultimate people that I just love, and uh he was waiting. I'm, I'm like, "Uh, what are you doing here?" He said, "Well I thought I'd come back and visit you," you know, I'm like, "Hmm, yeah, right." And uh he always was really mean, and he didn't go away. So I was like, okay. Well we'll talk. And then something clicked, you know, and he's a keeper. He was a keeper, you know, until, until he passed away 30, 30 some odd years married and 41 together.
[00:04:04] Bob: Lura comes from a very, very big family. This is Iva Spight, her older sister.
[00:04:10] Iva Spight: Well there were 8 children, two parents, so that's 10. Four girls, four boys.
[00:04:15] Bob: How did they pull that one off?
[00:04:19] Iva Spight: Who knows? Who knows.
[00:04:23] Bob: That's so magic.
[00:04:24] Iva Spight: And it actually came in sort of in order. Girl, boy, girl, boy.
[00:04:29] Bob: How about that.
[00:04:30] Bob: Lura, well she was the last child. The baby. It’s actually pretty typical that the baby of a large family becomes an entertainer. I’m the baby of my family, too, and you know, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
[00:04:43] Lura Ball: I just, I just hate being called the baby of the family. (chuckles)
[00:04:46] Bob: Ah, who doesn't, right? Everyone says you get all, everything you want, right all those things.
[00:04:51] Lura Ball: My thing is you get to a certain age and they're still calling you a baby, I'm like, come on, give it a rest, folks. You know.
[00:04:58] Bob: Lura and Iva started out life in Texas with the rest of their siblings, but they are all spread out now.
[00:05:04] Iva Spight: Well, unfortunate we lost three of our brothers already, but I'm the only one in Michigan. And then I have two sisters and a brother in California. Um, Lura's in Southern California. The other two is Northern, and then a sister in Texas. So we're kind of spread out, but you know we talk almost every day.
[00:05:23] Bob: Lura ended up in Los Angeles because her husband was a filmmaker. She decided to focus on her family and give up her future as a professional singer … but she kept on performing, and still does, with friends and for charities. After raising their three kids, Lura worked on an impressive set of jobs in community relations. She helped a large beer company give out grants to organizations serving inner cities for a while, then she worked at USC. But she also spent a lot of time baking.
[00:05:54] Lura Ball: I've been baking for years as a ministry, and then also in celebration of, of my, whenever my kids would do something, I would create a cookie in honor of, of whatever they did, you know, their grades or something, I would create a cookie for it, and over the years my colleagues would say, "Can you combine these elements and make me a cookie," or whatever.
[00:06:13] Bob: So your kids would come home with a good report card, and you would create a cookie for them?
[00:06:17] Lura Ball: Yeah, I wanted to find a unique way to celebrate them.
[00:06:20] Bob: That's unbelievable.
[00:06:21] Lura Ball: And so that was, that was a unique, you know, way to kind of um, have a lasting kind of way to celebrate, so they, they would have ownership, you know, in, in a tangible way.
[00:06:32] Bob: So can, did you, can you give me an example or two?
[00:06:35] Lura Ball: My oldest son, Langston, uh hates nuts. Um, so I created his Langston's No Nonsense Chocolate Chip Cookie, for his uh, his uh soccer celebrations. So that was his cookie. My daughter, Lauren, loves macadamia nuts, and she is a, a performer. Well, you know, she didn't want to come up in my, in the, in the wake of my performing, so she kind of studied quietly and then did a major solo, to my surprise, at one of her events. And so I celebrated her with her uh Lauren's Macadamia Nut and White Chocolate Chip cookie.
[00:07:13] Bob: Yes, Lura made a special cookie just for Iva, too.
[00:07:17] Iva Spight: Mine is the Sweet Potato Cranberry. It's a cookie that she made specially for me.
[00:07:24] Bob: And no one else gets to have it but you.
[00:07:27] Iva Spight: Every now and then I'll share some with my husband.
[00:07:31] Bob: The cookies aren’t just for family. Her famous baked goods end up at church services, community gatherings ... for Lura, baking is not just about sharing sweets, it's about sharing love. It is her mission.
[00:07:45] In the African American community, and it's probably true in other cultures, having a meal is a spiritual or communal practice or enterprise. You know, you don't really like to sit down and eat with people you don't really like. You know, it's a, it's, you know, it's a spiritual or communal thing. And so food begins to be more than just sustenance. It's a showing of love and tradition, and so I would prepare things because they were gifts from my hands. They were things that you couldn't buy. So I would bake for people. So, if someone, if I knew someone loved you know a chocolate cake with a, a yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting, I would make that for their birthday. If they were, you know, somebody in the church that does things really for everybody and what have you, I would celebrate them with that special cake. Or um, Monkey Bread is a big deal in our community. I would make Monkey Bread, you know, for the church, you know, during the season. Mother's Day, I would make Mother's Day Tea Cakes, and everybody in the church would be surprised and have a tea cake to take home. Father's Day, I would do something special for Father's Day, or maybe create a special uh cookie for Father's Day, and everybody in church would have it. So it was, you know, something, you know, a touch of love, you know, something that you can't buy. Something that lifts the spirit and lets people know that they're special.
[00:09:16] Bob: Lura had thought of – dreamed of really - turning her baking ministry into something more for many years, but there were always other important things that came first, Iva told me.
[00:09:27] Bob: How long had she mentioned to you that she, this was one of her dreams?
[00:09:31] Iva Spight: Well she's been saying it for a number of years, but you know, life gets in the way and, and you know, and so you don't really follow your dreams. You do what you need to do, you know what I mean?
[00:09:41] Bob: Yeah, of course.
[00:09:41] Iva Spight: So then when her husband passed, you know, and she went through the whole grieving process, uh she decided that, you know, it was time for her to do something for herself. And so she started on this journey about a year and a half ago, but she already had the conceptualization of it already down. She knew it was going to be Lura's Kitchen and her Cookies. She's a fantastic cook.
[00:10:05] Bob: She needed to do something for herself. And…she needed the business, too.
[00:10:10] Lura Ball: Yes. Yes, yes, it um, in terms of taking it to this, this major level, yes. You know, part of it's practical, because I had to look to the future. You know, we had spent a lot of our money on Cobra, you know, caring for him, and, you know, you know just the things in the world that make you spend all of your retirement on just trying to live. And then just having something to do and, and then also looking towards the future in terms of what I was going to leave my children.
[00:10:40] Bob: So around the beginning of 2020, Lura starts intense testing of recipes suitable for mass production – branding, packaging, all kinds of research. This was no impulsive step.
[00:10:52] Lura Ball: Yes, because at the end of the day you've got a target market, you've got personas that you want to know who's going to, who is, who is going to want your product? And it's the age-old question of what does your product do for people? What, what problem does it solve? Because I can make the best cookies in the world, but if nobody wants a cookie, (laugh)...
[00:11:20] Bob: Or they've never heard of the cookie.
[00:11:21] Lura Ball: Yeah, or they've heard of the cookie.
[00:11:24] Bob: As much as she needed delicious cookies, Lura needed capital to start her business. So she raised money while she was…waiting for the dough to rise, so to speak.
[00:11:34] Iva Spight: Yeah, she's competed for a number of grants. And so she, she received a number of grants to start up her business, and uh she's real good at seeking out resources. So because of that she, you know had mount--, you know, accumulated about that much. It may have been a little more because she had already start ordering products and packaging and all of that.
[00:11:56] Bob: Everything was coming together. Everything except the timing.
[00:12:02] Lura Ball: I decided, because I have some mobility issues, and because I did not want to go into brick and mortar. When I did my research, I'm like, okay, I've been there, did that. I don't want to stand all day long; I don't want 14-hour days. I don't want the expense of doing brick and mortar, what can I do? So I, my business was going to be online, and I needed a copacker. And so we worked for about 9 months on my starting line of 7 cookies, uh making the cookie dough. So my R&D was about nine months, and we went back and forth until they got the cookie dough right, until they got my recipes like how Lura would bake them. And so we went back and forth with them, shipping me cookie dough and whatever for me to try it. So then I went into a presale. Uh, so we did, we did that uh testing and that put us at about mid-January.
[00:12:52] Bob: Well that would be mid-January of …. 2020. And we all know what comes next. Lura’s Kitchen was locked down with the rest of us. And even after things started to open up a little, there were a fresh set of obstacles to shipping cookies around the country. Lura had to pivot. And she did. She wouldn’t be selling baked cookies anymore. She’d be selling cookie mixes – ready for buyers to bake at home themselves.
[00:13:20] Lura Ball: So I spent about a month or so trying to figure out what I was going to do, how was I going to recoup, and I think by, by summer I decided to go into the dry mixes. And so then I talked to my copacker, and so we went into R&D on the dry mixes, and decided, I decided to just offer the three to come out of it. So by 2021, we were uh, looking at how do I roll this out.
[00:13:48] Bob: Lura had to go through R&D all over again. She really, really wanted people who baked her cookies at home to … feel the love, like they would in her kitchen. So she agonized over ingredients.
[00:14:01] Lura Ball: I had a problem initially with my tea cake mix. And we finally got that right, got, got that right, and it had to do with my nutmeg. (laugh) 'Cause I fresh grind my nutmeg, so um, my copacker said, "Lura, we're not going to fresh grind the nutmeg." I said, "Okay, so we need to find the most potent nutmeg, because I want it fresh ground. When they open that bag, I want them to smell that nutmeg."
[00:14:25] Bob: She also has to reimagine all her packaging, but with help from a small business community development loan, she is able to plan for that. Finally, everything is ready, and Lura is headed into pre-sales, but there's still one more hurdle to overcome – supply chain problems.
[00:14:44] Lura Ball: Okay, so we went into presales in September of 2021, with a delivering, promising that we would ship by Christmas, by December, by December 10th, I believe it was, something like that. I don't know if you remember, we had this bubble with shipping. Our copacker didn't have all of our ingredients. We had a problem with the trucks, and we had a problem with getting the packages to the distribut--, to the distributor. So I did a goodwill campaign to all of my preorders, and that didn't seem to hurt us. They seemed to understand because it was in the news, and because of the, how we communicated with them. I didn't have any bad feedback from any of our, the people that presold, uh that we presold into. So we kind of averted that, okay. So then we get to our launch and my daughter launched on, Nov--, on Thanksgiving Day, and that brings us up to the horrible day after Thanksgiving.
[00:15:56] Bob: The horrible day after Thanksgiving. After years of waiting ... maybe 40 years, putting off a dream to support her family, after saying goodbye to her life partner, after dealing with Covid, and supply chains and websites, Lura is finally able to launch during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2021. And the next morning, staying over with family after a big feast the night before, Lura is awoken by a very troubling phone call.
[00:16:26] Lura Ball: I'm at my son's house because we'd spent Thanksgiving there with the kids. We have an air mattress, and so, and so I, I sleep on the air mattress, so I was laying there asleep. (giggle) And when the phone, but I hear the... whenever the phone rings I hear, I, I wake up. So I was kind of, I was kind of half groggy too to be honest. And the call, (phone ring) is um, it says, "Bank of America Small Business," 'cause it's in my phone. And I forget what the young man said his name was. And he says that there's um, someone trying to put Zelle transfers through my account, uh for $5,000, and I'm like, what?
[00:17:06] Bob: Lura is still waking up, still getting her bearings, when the man on the other side of the phone assures her that everything will be okay. He'll be able to stop the transactions, he just needs her to carefully follow a couple of instructions.
[00:17:21] Lura Ball: And I, and I said, "Okay, well, I'm going to hang up and I'll call you back." And he says, "Well you can do that, or we can do two-step verification, uh but it's up to you." And I said, "Oh, okay, we could do the two-step verification, I do that all the time."
[00:17:36] Bob: So Lura follows those instructions. She gets a text, and the caller tells her to read the code to him. She does thinking she's helping stop a thief from taking $5,000 from her bank account. And, it works, the caller says. Her money is safe!
[00:17:52] Lura Ball: And they're saying that they are stopping the Zelle transactions. So they give me what I think is a claim number, and so I think, okay, tragedy averted.
[00:18:05] Bob: What happens next is completely confusing.
[00:18:09] Lura Ball: And when I get off the phone, I started getting these alerts from my email, saying that I have sent money to somebody at Chase. I'm like, what? And so I go into that email, and so I quickly try to grab the money to take it back, to take it back, and it's already gone. And I was, what is this? And so I called Bank of America back, but it's the, it's Thanksgiving, and it takes me 45 minutes to get somebody on the phone, and he says, "You've been scammed."
[00:18:46] Bob: You’ve been scammed? Lura is looking online at her account and there are three $5,000 transactions and one $3,500 transaction totaling $18,500. And all that money is….gone? But how could someone have stolen her money?
[00:19:06] Lura Ball: And I'm like, "Well wait a minute. I had a two-step verification." He said, "Yeah, they're getting pretty sophisticated." I'm like, "What do you mean they're getting sophis--, sophisticated?" He said, "You should have hung up and called us back."
[00:19:19] Bob: At this point, what anyone says Lura ‘should’ have done isn’t very relevant. Her money’s gone…all the money in the small business loan she received, and then some. That’s money she needs to pay her vendors, to fulfill the orders that have just started coming in. To advertise.
[00:19:35] Lura Ball: I said, "Well what can I do?" He said, "I'll take, I can take a claim. It'll take 90 days." I said, I said, "I just lost my business." I said, "That's $18,500. That's everything I have for my business." And he's like, "Well, I'm really sorry, miss, but this is all I can do. So I'm just like sick. I am absolutely just sick. And so I, I get, do the claim, and I, let me tell you, it just, it, I can't even begin to tell you how I felt. I felt ashamed, I felt sick to my stomach, I had, my head was swimming.
[00:20:11] Bob: In an instant, Lura’s world is turned upside down. And the Thanksgiving holiday visit is ruined.
[00:20:19] Lura Ball: Oh no, everybody knew what happened. When I got off the, the kids, the grands were like, "What happened Grandma?" I'm like "Oh no, my God, oh my God." I'm like, I mean I literally had a meltdown. The whole house knew.
[00:20:29] Bob: Lura calls Iva right away to tell her the story.
[00:20:33] Iva Spight: She was sounding so, oh God, defeated, so sad, so upset, you know, when she told me, you know. And so then she walked me through the process, and you know, how they called, just like you know, the bank says, you know, well the bank called and said she would been frauded or something like that. Well she thought it was the bank. It was such a, oh God, it was, it was really heart wrenching just to hear it in her voice, you know, because it's like that took the wind out of her sail, it really did.
[00:21:10] Bob: Well and again, this is like all these stories, this, it's not just money, right. This is her lifelong dream. This is her putting her life back together and looking forward, right, and all the sudden what a, what a punch to the stomach. Oh my God.
[00:21:22] Iva Spight: Absolutely.
[00:21:24] Bob: As the two sisters talk, the shock begins to wear off a little bit, and Lura and Iva realize ... Lura’s Kitchen isn’t going to open after all, not while they have to figure this out.
[00:21:35] Iva Spight: Well she was worried it’s; it stopped every--, her PR, you know, campaign had to be halted, you know, put on hold. She could not order anymore product at that time if she needed it. Even uh, support staff, you know, she couldn't get like 1 or 2 people in to help pack and things like that if she needed it, you know, so it, it affect--, it basically brought the business to a halt.
[00:21:59] Bob: But Iva figures there must be some way to get the money back. After all, when credit or debit cards are stolen or hacked, consumers get their money back then.
[00:22:10] Iva Spight: And I said, "Well, let's see what we could do." You know, and so then we got to work. You know we just started brainstorming, and she said she contacted the, the bank, she would, she filed a uh, you know, a fraud complaint, and she, you know, then it was just a matter of waiting to hear what the bank said.
[00:22:26] Bob: But within a few weeks, she gets a letter from Bank of America and … the news isn’t good.
[00:22:33] Lura Ball: So we thought for sure that Bank of America would, you know, right away recognize and give me, give me the money back. And then on the 21st I get a letter from them saying that the claim had been denied.
[00:22:46] Bob: The letter says, in essence, that Lura authorized the transactions, so the bank has no responsibility to pay her back. That money’s gone … forever, and there is no way to get it back.
[00:23:00] Lura Ball: And so I called, sat on the phone for an hour and a half that time, went through three different people before I got the right person, and she said, "Well, according to what you told the first person, you uh stated that you gave them passcodes," and I said, "No, I never stated anything about a passcode. I said that they offered me a two-step verification which is something I do with you guys all the time."
[00:23:32] Bob: The conversation goes nowhere, and it seems, Lura’s Kitchen is going nowhere, too. But Lura and Iva ... well, they aren’t going anywhere! And they aren’t about to let a criminal steal Lura’s dreams. So, Iva helps Lura come up with a new recipe to save the cookie business. What is it? Well, that’s next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:23:59] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.
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