Caring for ailing senior dogs is a passion project for Helen and her husband, who run the nonprofit dog hospice Old Dogs Go to Helen. They rely on donations to pay for the dogs’ medical and comfort care until they pass on. One day, they receive a text message appearing to be from the nonprofit’s Bank of America account, which leads them through a familiar series of steps to secure their accounts from a possible fraud. While Helen thought she was averting a crisis, she was actually the victim of a sophisticated bank impersonation fraud.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Helen St. Pierre: He got a text that stated, "Are you trying to make a $339 purchase in it at a Target in Georgia? Answer yes or no." And he wrote back, "No." I was like full of relief, because I thought, okay, thank God, they've canceled the credit card charge. My cards are okay, let's just get back to normal and caring for the dogs and feeding the kids and all of that stuff. I had that sort of nagging at me, but not like something bad has happened, but I wanted to make sure that this is all okay. So I called the Bank of America number, and I said, "What's going on with this?" And she was like, "I don't know what you're talking about." And then my stomach just dropped.
[00:00:42] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. Imagine stealing from a dog shelter, and not just any shelter, but a hospice shelter where a family takes care of seriously ill animals who have only a few months or even just a few weeks to live. We know criminals who operate scams can do some pretty despicable things, but today's story might represent a new low and it's important because it's about a crime that the Federal Trade Commission says has increased 20-fold. 20-fold in just the past couple of years. It all starts with a text message that looks like it comes from your bank. Odds are, many of you have even received one of those, but wait until you hear what happens when one of these texts is received by the nonprofit Old Dogs Go to Helen.
[00:01:38] Helen St. Pierre: Brady is one of my favorites. He is a, a little like black-labish mix. He's 13. We just found out that he has Cushings and a huge, enlarged liver, and we've started him on this very special meds, and he's doing so much better than he was. And he came from a, an elderly person who could no longer care for him because she had all kinds of health issues, and the family couldn't take him, so he ended up here, and he is just the sweetest little, most grateful guy. We have Thelma, who is completely blind. We have Myrna, who had all of her teeth removed, so we call her No Jaw Myrna, and she walks around and just pees every 5 to 10 minutes, but she's the happiest little nugget. We have, I mean I could go on for hours talking about all of the dogs...
[00:02:18] Bob: Please do, I'm enjoying this. So yeah.
[00:02:20] Helen St. Pierre: (laughs) Okay, so yeah, they're all; you know, we have Brandy. Brandy is uh, only 2, but she has something called cerebral hyperplasia, which means that's her, her brain did not develop properly when she was a puppy. It's kind of like cerebral palsy for people. And so she has all kinds of strange movements; she's handicapped. She's in a wheelchair. We call her a hospice; she's only 2, but when they have these kinds of disabilities, you're constantly weighing quality of life for them, but she has come so far since being with us. We've started her on PT and laser therapy, and she's just the happiest little nugget. We have, so we've, we've got a whole different gang of, you know, misfits like, but they're amazing.
[00:03:02] Bob: That's Helen St. Pierre, who founded and runs Old Dogs Go to Helen in New Hampshire with her husband. She also has a day job as an animal trainer, but her labor of love is taking in very sick dogs and giving them a comfortable ending to their lives.
[00:03:18] Helen St. Pierre: My husband and I are both extreme animal lovers, but it was my, I lost my, just like you did, I lost my senior dog of 15 and the house just did not feel the same without my senior dog around. And because like I said, because of my job, I have so many connections with rescues and shelters, a shelter had reached out and said, "Hey, Helen," you know, "Do you know anybody? We've got this very old dog, uh, very abused. He needs a lot of medical care, but we, he's not doing well in the shelter. Is there anyone that might want him?" And I immediately was just like a kneejerk reaction. I said, "He needs to come here." And once my husband and I went through this process with a couple of hospice dogs, we realized that it was something that we not only did we love it, but we loved what it was teaching our kids about compassion and about you know selflessness, and teaching them about quality of life, and appreciating every single moment and also quality of death and, and how to deal with feelings and talk about it. And it, it's given us a lot of gifts.
[00:04:23] Bob: And so it's called Old Dogs Go to Helen.
[00:04:26] Helen St. Pierre: Old Dogs Go to Helen, yes, so it's a 501c3, it's a nonprofit, and it is a side labor of love, let's just put it that way, or passion project that my husband and I do on top of my regular day-to-day business of dog training and behavior.
[00:04:42] Bob: That's all very, very beautiful. You mentioned children. So you have a very full house.
[00:04:47] Helen St. Pierre: Yes, we have a very full house. It is controlled chaos. We have a 5-year-old, and my 13-year-old, and they both are very active members with the sanctuary and the farm, and they, they love and take care of all of this just like, just like we do.
[00:05:02] Bob: Helen and her husband started this project six years ago, and nowadays you are likely to find 10 or 15 dogs at her home at any time roaming free in a part of the house she calls the sanctuary.
[00:05:15] Bob: So your house is full of aging, sweet dogs who have nowhere else to go, and you give them a dignified last few years of life.
[00:05:26] Helen St. Pierre: Not usually years. Honestly, most of our dogs have months left. Years is, is, is really great. We have a couple that have been here for about a year, but the average length of stay for the dogs that come to us are around 3 to 6 months.
[00:05:40] Bob: I have to say, almost anyone I know who's ever been in um, any kind of dog-related field has dreamed about moving to New Hampshire, buying a piece of property, and inviting all the old dogs they can find to live with them. So you are living a lot of people's dream it seems like.
[00:05:55] Helen St. Pierre: (laugh) It, it can feel that way for a lot of people until they come and they have to do it every day, because it's, it's a quite a, like I said, it is a labor of love. It is cleaning up, you know, pee and poop and making sure that everybody gets their medicine and their eyes..., you know it's caring for the elderly and the infirm and the, you know, the dying. So it's, it's certainly not all cuddles and sweetness that a lot of people think about until they come and they see what it is.
[00:06:22] Bob: I think it would be worthwhile telling people, giving them just a little bit of the flavor of how challenging it, it can be if they've never cared for an elder dog, just making sure they have all their medicines and what, and whatnot. I mean it's hard enough doing it for one dog. I can't imagine doing it for 15.
[00:06:38] Helen St. Pierre: Yes, it's a lot of work. You know once you get into the, the groove of it, you, for me, it doesn't feel like the amount, or it's a really funny thi--, thing because you know when, when I'm doing it, my husband and I are doing it, we just have a, we have a system. We have a routine. We know what to do. We pull up the pee pads that are soiled, we replace them. We make sure, you know, these dogs have their medicines and, and he does their meds and I do their meds and we; we sort of get the routine. The reality comes when I have to train somebody on how to do that. Like let's say we have to go away for an evening to, you know go do something for the nonprofit or for the business and I have to have a volunteer go through like this is how you just clean the space. That's when I realize that one of the reasons that it doesn't feel like work at this point, is because we're so conditioned in how to do it. But it is, it's a, it's a, quite a process to make sure that the place stays clean and sanitary and, you know, a, a loving space for, for them.
[00:07:39] Bob: I'm imagining like you do sometimes feeding time in the morning where you line up the five dogs and put five bowls of food in front of them and you do it in the right order of dominance or whatnot. Um, is it sort of like that when you're giving out medicine in the morning?
[00:07:53] Helen St. Pierre: Uh, kind of. I mean we sort of divvy it up by there's, there's pill medicine, and then there is physical like medicine in terms of some dogs need their pills for pain and, and that sort of thing, and then some dogs need ear flush, eye flush, they need laser therapy, they need all of those kinds of things that keep them physically feeling better as well. So we have, kind of have to divide it up on who needs what and when.
[00:08:17] Bob: Honestly, my brain is exploding.
[00:08:20] Helen St. Pierre: (laughs)
[00:08:22] Bob: Yeah, I mean, you know again, like doing eye flush on one dog is, can, I, I used to have a golden retriever who just had crazy, sensitive ears, and it would take three of us at the vet's office to try to clean his ears out, so oh my God.
[00:08:34] Helen St. Pierre: Yes, it's, it's, like I said, but once you get the system, once, and especially if you have a husband like mine who's like, alright, I'll hold, you do this, do that...and we just sort of go down the line, it can become a very well-oiled machine, but it, it, it's eye-opening when I have somebody that I said, "Look, I'm going to show you how we do this." And you know, an hour in, I'm like, all right, we've done two dogs. (laugh) Now we have to keep going down that line. So yes, it's quite, it's quite a labor of love like I said.
[00:09:01] Bob: A labor of love that leads often to heartache.
[00:09:06] Helen St. Pierre: We say goodbye to dogs; we lost one two days ago, we, we've said goodbye to three so far this week. We need, lose dogs all the time. But the strength that we find is that we know that these dogs have not passed in a shelter, cold and alone. They haven't gone through, you know the massive amount of stress that some elderly dogs that are treated as either disposable, or families can't take them, or they just get too sick. They haven’t gone through that. So it is difficult work, but it the, the gifts that they give us outweigh the, the, the heartache I guess we could say.
[00:09:43] Bob: And it's more than that. Elder dogs bring with them very, very special qualities that, well, you might not know about until you take care of one.
[00:09:53] Bob: There is something all so magical and wonderful about a peaceful older animal in the house, isn't there?
[00:09:59] Helen St. Pierre: Yes, you know, part of my work now in my, in my business, you know, they both sort of bleed into each other is trying to promote and explain to people that you know listen, puppies are wonderful. I love puppies and I love my young dogs, but there is something absolutely, it's, it's hard to put it verbally what it is, but it's, it's like magic about having an old, wise dog laying at your feet or by your side on the couch and especially around your kids. And just having that presence they, they bring something to the table. And so I try very hard now to advocate because I don't, I do this work because I have to. Not everybody goes into the shelter and says give me the oldest, sickest, stinkiest dog that you have, but you know if more people did that, there would be a lot less of dogs that need this help, and they would also, people would realize just how much caring for our elderly, whether it's humans or animals, is a community effort, and we need to be able to put that, that effort back into some of these dogs.
[00:11:06] Bob: So I was afraid of dogs, um, and uh, but I had been, I went through a breakup, and I kind of on a whim went to an organization that convinced me to take an older dog; probably all this happened kind of quickly, so I didn't have time to think about it, which is often the best way, right.
[00:11:21] Helen St. Pierre: Yes.
[00:11:22] Bob: Yeah, and this, this guy, his name is Bo, and all he did for about 18 months was just lay at my feet wherever I was in the house. And, and it was the most beautiful thing.
[00:11:34] Helen St. Pierre: Yep. It, they are, they are by far the best, best friends. It, right off the bat, right? You know that's what I say to people is puppies are fantastic, but you've got a good two to three years of heavy work ahead of you to teach and mold and, and help that dog grow up to be your best friend, which they ultimately will. But if you want to bring home an animal that it's just going to be so grateful and happy and immediately just become your best friend, you need to get a senior dog. And you know what, what I hear all the time, the kickback is, "Well he won't live that long." And it's like you... you need to put yourself aside there and think about what you're going to be giving this dog. So that's, that's kind of the way that we look at it too.
[00:12:23] Bob: So as we said, it's a labor of love but it's also a very expensive one.
[00:12:29] Bob: There might be some people who don't know this. So um, how frequently do your dogs need medical care that costs multiple thousands of dollars?
[00:12:40] Helen St. Pierre: We spend an average of 15 to 2---, 1500 to 2000 dollars a week in medical care, um, because we have constant dogs coming in. So we just took in two dogs this week, Lambchop and Marley. Marley's 16. She has undergone severe cruelty. She is almost completely bald. She was brought in through protective custody through the SPCA, but they're not going to be able to adopt her out because of all her medical and her age, so she's come to us. She needs a full workup, skin treatment, eye treatment, ear treatment. She's got lumps and bumps that we need to biopsy and make sure, you know, if she has cancer, what does it look like? That kind of thing. So that's hundreds right there on top of the dogs that we have to say goodbye to with humane euthanasia with private cremation now is around 400 to 500 dollars. You know so that's an average cost for us per week is 1500 to 2000 just in medical care, not talking about supplies like pee pads, cleaning, food, you know all of that stuff that just, it all adds up. So that's why our, our monthly costs, just with no emergencies, is usually around $10,000 a month.
[00:13:49] Bob: Fortunately, generous donors help out with the expenses at Old Dogs Go to Helen. And Helen has a special bank account for the nonprofit where she tries to keep a balance of about a month's worth of expenses, about $10,000, so she can always keep up with the steady stream of veterinarian visits. But one day into this well-oiled menagerie disaster strikes.
[00:14:13] Helen St. Pierre: My husband, Jake, was actually with the sanctuary, and I was in the main house, which the sanctuary is, is part of the main house, but it's a whole separate space, because then we're not walking through pee and poop. They have that whole area. So he got a text that stated, "Are you trying to use this card ending in (the four digits of the card), um, to make a $339 purchase in it at a Target in Georgia? Answer yes or no." Typical text. We've gotten these all the time. And he wrote back, "No." And it came from the B of A text, like the six-digit thing. So immediately when he wrote back no, he got a phone call, and the, the phone call came in and said, "Mark from Bank of America. I'm calling you from the Fraud Department. We have an unusual or suspect, uh purchase that looks like it's trying to be made on this card. Are you trying to make that purchase?" And my husband said, "No. Absolutely not." And he said, "Okay. Are you also trying to withdraw $9500 from this account," which is the our Old Dogs Go to Helen account. He said, "No. We're absolutely not trying to withdraw money from that Old Dog's account." And he said, "Okay, well we're going to need to freeze everything. Do you have your information in front of you?" And he said, "No, I am not the banking person. This is my wife's department. You know we need to; we need to get her on the phone." And he said, "Okay. Is this her number?" which he, he had my phone number, and said her name, and he said, "Yep, that's her." He said, "Okay, um, I'm going to hang up with you and I will contact your wife. Why don't you go tell her what's going on."
[00:15:45] Bob: So Jake rushes through the house to give Helen the lowdown. But before he can even finish the story...
[00:15:51] Helen St. Pierre: My phone rings and it comes up as our, our Bank of America branch, which is a local number, but it says Bank of America. And I deal with them quite frequently with our nonprofit stuff and everything. I picked it up. He said, "Yep, this is Mark from Fraud. I just spoke to your husband. There's been a attempted charge on this card ending in, you know, [beep]," is what it was, "...and they're trying to spend $339 at Target in Georgia. Do you want that?" you know, and he said, "That's not you?" And I said, "Absolutely not. Please cancel everything." And he said, "Okay, we're going through the process right now. You're going to have to stay with me on the phone. We're going to cancel all your accounts and make sure that we can, you know, cancel your cards." Not cancel the accounts, cancel your cards. And I said, "Yes, that's fine." And he said, "There's also this, someone's trying to withdraw $9500 from this account." And the, that account was our Old Dogs Go to Helen, but the, what's important about that account is that account, it was our savings version of the nonprofit. So something that's very important when you have a nonprofit is to have at least a month's worth of your expenses put aside for your rainy day. We rely on completely on donations in order to function. So if we were to get a month of very, very slow donations, we need to always have what we use potentially on medications, on vet visits, on supplies for the dogs. And so there's, there was literally $10,000 in that account, and they were trying to access $9500 of it. And I said, "Absolutely not." He said, "Okay." (clears throat) "I'm going to send you a six-digit code to verify your identity to get into your Bank of America account. I need you to read back that, that number to me," which again, I've banked with Bank of America for 25 years. This is very standard procedure to me, so the text comes in on my phone, I read him that number. He said, "Okay, great. Can you also now, while I'm on the phone with you, so I have, I'm, I have access to your account. Can you also log onto your account?" I said, "Absolutely. I'll log on now." And he said, "Okay, can you see your Old Dogs Go to Helen savings account?" And I said, "Yes, I can see that." He said, "Okay. What I'm going to do is I'm going to take the, the funds in that account and I'm going to put it into a separate Bank of America account. I want you to look at where I'm putting it." He said, "Go to transfers." I said, "Absolutely." Go to transfers. I clicked on transfers. He said, "Transfer to a Bank of America account," and he said, "Do you see that I just added this in for you. It's a, an advance safety account." And I said, "Yes, that's great." He said, "Okay, I'm going to send you another six-digit code,"...
[00:18:24] Bob: It's all happening so fast, and Helen is grateful the bank has spotted the fraud, but still she wants to double-check with a second person about everything she's doing. So...
[00:18:35] Helen St. Pierre: At that point, I was like, "Well hold on a second." I said, "Can I just, before I do this, can I talk to somebody? Do you have a supervisor that I can talk to, because I'm just really stressed out." And he said, "Absolutely. Please hold, let me get my supervisor on for you." The hold music was the same old music I always listen to. Another guy comes on the phone. I did not, he didn't give me his name, but I didn't ask for it. And he said, "Yep. This, I'm the supervisor here at the Fraud Department. This is the way that we handle these kinds of things at this point. We don't want them to have any access to your accounts anymore, so we're going to put this here and then everything's been canceled and by 9 o'clock tomorrow morning, (it was a Friday at 2 o'clock), you will, you'll be able to move that back into that account, but everything will be safe." And I said, "Great. Okay." He said, "Can you read that six-digit code back to me?" I said, "Yep, here's the code." He said, "Refresh it. Can you see that that transfer has been made?" I said, "Yes, it looks like it's, it's, it's gone." I couldn't see it in the account. And he said, "Thank you very much. We will be calling you at 9 a.m. when the branch opens tomorrow morning and we'll make sure you're all squared away. Do you have any questions?" And I said, "No, that sounds great. Thank you so much." I mean I was like, Bob, I was so grateful, right? Because I was like, thank you, you've just saved me from losing all that money.
[00:19:44] Bob: Yeah, yeah.
[00:19:45] Helen St. Pierre: Um, my husband was there the whole time. Like we were in front of the computer making sure, and so we hung up, and I was Iike, "Wow, thank God," you know, "Our cards are canceled. Oh, thank God, they saved us." Like wow, that was great.
[00:19:56] Bob: But Helen goes to bed that night not feeling completely settled.
[00:20:01] Helen St. Pierre: Like I said, I have all my accounts at Bank of America, so I was going cancel, cancel, cancel. I canceled everything and so after I got off the phone with them, you know you just, after a phone call like that I was like full of relief, because I thought, okay, thank God, no one's moving, no one's taking anything. They've canceled the credit, uh the, the card charge, in in Georgia. My cards are okay, let's just get back to normal and caring for the dogs and feeding the kids and all of that stuff. But in the back of my mind, I was like, you know, 9 o'clock tomorrow I'll get that money back, like everything is safe. So I had that sort of nagging at me, but not nagging at me like something bad has happened, but I wanted to make sure that, that this is all okay. And then again, I went back, I logged back online later that day just to see, you know, I was checking, making sure nothing else had come out or anything, and I couldn't see that, that money anymore, but I was like, nope, 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. And when like literally 9:25 the next morning when no one had called me, that was when I started to get a little bit panicky.
[00:21:00] Bob: A little bit panicky. And it isn't long before that panicky feeling turns into real panic.
[00:21:08] Helen St. Pierre: Well 9:25 came the following day, it's a.m. on Saturday and I hadn't gotten the call yet. And I was like, "Well this is weird." So I called the number, the Bank of America number, and I said, "Hey, it's Helen," you know, "what's going on with this?" And she was like, "I don't know what you're talking about." And then my stomach just it, it like dropped. You know because she said, "Oh no, this um, this might be a scam."
[00:21:32] Bob: This might be a scam.
[00:21:36] Helen St. Pierre: So I immediately then called the Bank of America fraud department and I told them what had happened, and of course, you know when you call a bank on a Saturday at this point, which is why these people do this to you on a Friday, 'cause there's no one really available, the Fraud Department was like, "Well this wasn't fraud. This was a scam. You, you gave them that pin number, so you actively gave them all this access, so this really isn't our department. We can't help you."
[00:22:03] Bob: "We can't help you," she remembers being told. It wasn't a Bank of America Fraud employee on the phone the day before, it was a criminal. The six-digit code he asked for wasn't to verify her account, it was to bypass her two-factor security so the criminal could access her money. And that safety account, all the money was transferred into, that was really an account the criminals controlled. Bottom line, all $9500, everything she had in the bank to care for the animals at Old Dogs Go to Helen, it has all been stolen.
[00:22:39] Helen St. Pierre: And I was beside myself, so I drove into the Bank of America department. I went in, in-person, thank God they were open and the, the in-person people were fantastic. They actually started the report. I called the Concord Police Department, 'cause my bank was in Concord. I filed a police report, I filed an FBI report. The bank submitted everything to show, we showed them the text message. I showed them the... at that point they still had, if you went onto my Bank of America and you went into "My Bank of America Accounts" you could still see that advanced safety account which is a Bank of America. Some, whoever did this, went into my online, created, linked their Bank of America account somehow and was able to pull that money into that. You could still see all of it. And so we sent it all over, this was on June 10th, and five days later Bank of America said, "No, we're not giving you a dime back because you gave them an access by giving them that six-digit pin," which we then fought and fought and it's been, so but, but that is the long story, I won't get into it, but that's how we lost that money.
[00:23:45] Bob: The long story is that banking rules which protect consumers from electronic hacking thefts have some gray areas. Right now, banks argue that when consumers are manipulated into helping criminals steal money, they sometimes consider that an authorized transaction. So they're not required by law to provide a refund of the stolen money. We've done stories about this before, particularly around common Zelle scams.
[00:24:10] Helen St. Pierre: First thing I did was I got a letter from them stating that because the activity, I forget what the verbiage exactly was, but basically the activity was consistent with transfers I had made in the past. And it was because I had logged into my own bank, bank... that because I had... this is also part of it that I also learned is that because they had me also log in, right, so when the people called me and they were logging in and I got that verification code, and I also logged in; the way that the, when the bank goes back and looks at it, it looks like I was the one doing the transferring, if that makes sense. Like that's, so that was...
[00:24:53] Bob: This was an authorized transfer.
[00:24:56] Helen St. Pierre: Exactly.
[00:24:57] Bob: But when you hear Helen describe what happened to her, it's hard to see how she authorized the transfer.
[00:25:05] Helen St. Pierre: Yes. And so that's, that's what was really upsetting to me because when I had that conversation with the, the first conversation, he said, "Okay, I need to verify your identity and your account. What's your name?" I said, "Helen," you know, blah, blah, and I gave him all the stuff. And he said, "Okay, I'm going to send you a six-digit pin." And I said, "With all due respect," you know, "how can you say to me that what I, what I did yesterday was wrong, when you are literally putting me through the exact same paces that these people did to me yesterday, and, and telling me that I was wrong in giving them that information, but you're asking for the same information."
[00:25:41] Bob: Helen appealed the bank's refusal to return the stolen money; that didn't go well either.
[00:25:47] Helen St. Pierre: I then went back into the bank and was in tears and said, "We need to resubmit it." And they submitted an appeal. That took 40 days only for them to then deny it again. I re--, just last week got another denial.
[00:26:04] Bob: There's this area where the banks like to say, "Well you actively gave someone an access code versus a criminal taking it, and, and, you know, we're really splitting hairs there.
[00:26:16] Helen St. Pierre: Right, that's, that's how I felt when especially when dealing with the, the fraud department saying to me, well this isn't fraud, this is a scam. But if your system is so easily replicated that a long-time, extremely loyal customer is that easily manipulated into believing that, that, that your system is, is safe, and then giving that information away, it, it doesn't feel fair that then we are penalized for that.
[00:26:48] Bob: Those first fraudulent texts, they seemed so real. The followup phone call from the bank might sound plausible but in reality, most times, a human from the bank won’t call at a time like this, you’ll get automated instructions for disputing a charge. In any case, remember, when you get a call that you don’t expect from the bank, or any other company, you should always hang up, call the number on the company’s website or on the back of your credit card.
[00:27:17] Helen St. Pierre: They texted his phone number first, because the card that they, that the phishing text, so to speak, that they did was on his debit card ending in [beep], which is a Bank of America card. So when that text came through stating, "Are you trying to make this purchase on [beep], answer yes or no," that was to Jake's personal Bank of America account card.
[00:27:42] Bob: And, and... and the text had the last four digits of that debit card or something, right?
[00:27:48] Helen St. Pierre: Yes. [beep], which is his Bank of America debit card.
[00:27:50] Bob: So somehow thing number one, they, they knew your husband's phone number, and they, they knew at least part of his debit card number, right?
[00:27:57] Helen St. Pierre: Yes. And it came through as a Bank of America text.
[00:28:00] Bob: When he hangs up with them and they call you, did he give them your phone number?
[00:28:07] Helen St. Pierre: They knew my number. They said, "Okay, is your wife Helen Elizabeth?" You know and they this...
[00:28:11] Bob: Okay, so there's thing two. They knew enough, at least a few digits of your debit card. They knew his phone number, and then your phone number and I guess, did they know your name?
[00:28:20] Helen St. Pierre: They knew my full name, yup, but they asked me to verify it, just like Bank of America does.
[00:28:24] Bob: Sure.
[00:28:27] Bob: Of course there’s been so many data breaches, criminals can get personal information like the last for four of an account number or a phone number quickly. Perfect Scam listeners know we try to help people understand what it's like to be the victim of a scam. It is understandable that there's some human impulse to say, "Well, I wouldn't have done that." "Why would he or she respond that way?" What happened to Helen is a great example of why it's unhelpful to think that way because circumstances matter. A lot. Let's take you back to the morning that first scam text arrived.
[00:29:03] Bob: And I'm trying to picture that, you know, how busy a morning it was when this text came in. Because I always like to stress to people you know you're listening right now to a podcast about scams. So your brain is focused on crime, right, but most people this happens when there's like a baby in one arm, another baby in a hand. You're walking out of a grocery store and your phone is pressed against your neck with your shoulder, and you get a message and you don't have, you just want to do whatever you have to to get out of this situation. Stop the screaming kid, right, so what...
[00:29:33] Helen St. Pierre: 100%
[00:29:34] Bob: ...was the scene like when this all happened?
[00:29:36] Helen St. Pierre: Well Jake was at the sanctuary, and I was in the house with the main kids, and taking care of everybody and answering emails and just doing you know our round-the-clock stuff. We were just sort of functioning. And so yeah, it, it, you're completely and totally right. You know you're not; I'm not waiting around going, I wonder if I'm going to get scammed today. But when you have a phone call like that, you know, a 25-minute phone call, a 20, 25-minute phone call with a bank where you're canceling everything and you're going through all this process, people don't realize, especially for us, like Jake and I have very, very little extra time for anything like that, if that makes sense. Like you know a 20-minute call has now depreciated our availability to do XYZ.
[00:30:22] Bob: Let me ask this que-- question. How many dogs are you petting during a phone call like this?
[00:30:27] Helen St. Pierre: (laughs) Oh probably just 1 or 2 were I think were on the bed, uh well, 'cause we went up, yeah, when we have to make an important phone call, like right now, you know, our bedroom, our main bedroom, it's like our solace space, it's like my bunker. I go in here because I know that I have at that point I'm not going to deal with some little old dog hacking, coughing next to me. I used to try to do phone calls and stuff in the sanctuary, but it would just sound like, you know, 'cause you'd have a dog going like... (Bob laughs) ... you know right, and people are like, "Are you all right?" I'm like, "Yeah, no, no, no, it's fine. It's just Wesley."
[00:30:59] Bob: As all of this is happening, as the appeals are getting denied, Helen has a problem. The medical bills for the hospice dogs sure haven't stopped.
[00:31:09] Bob: Explain to people what that feels like when suddenly you know the whole world has shifted and you start to realize, oh no, I, I, this incredibly important money, this money I take care of old dogs with is gone.
[00:31:20] Helen St. Pierre: Um, you just, you just feel sick, you know. You feel like sick and, they, it's a mixture of complete and total anger and sadness with, with also this feeling of extreme embarrassment and shame. Because you think was that I dumb? Well like was I that stupid that I, how could I, but you just, so it's this, there's a whole wave. There's no, it's not, it's a massive wave of different emotions that you're riding, but none of them are good. So it, it's all this massive adrenaline cortisol dump that you get of just, I don't know what has happened, but now everything is upside-down and, and I need to see if I can fix it. And the worst part of that process is when you go to talk to somebody to try to help, have them help you fix it, and you are then met with, "well you messed up." And that was the worst feeling the way that I was treated by Bank of America when this happened.
[00:32:27] Bob: And, and I want people to understand, there were real consequences to this, right? I mean this was your one-month emergency fund and it was just suddenly gone, right?
[00:32:36] Helen St. Pierre: Yeah, I mean we got donat--, we, you know, we got a, a ton of donations to help ease that, right. So we, when we put it out publicly, people stepped up, and they helped us, which was amazing. However, what people have to understand is that that flushing that back in from those people means that those people now can't, they, there's only so much to go around for nonprofits. So when they flush us back in from that scam, that means that if we have an emergency surgery for a dog or a severe case of neglect or something that we have to step up for that happens all the time, it costs thousands of dollars, we have to reach even further to get that funding, right, because that, those, that thous--, $10,000 had to be replenished through our community in that way. And so it's, it's major consequence. You know we, we don't like, we don't, we don't ask for money like we're not like hey, help us, help us, help us. We, we do our best, we, we take our donations and we ask for it when we need it. But that really drained a lot of our, you know, local community reach for that.
[00:33:48] Bob: You can only go to the well so many times, right?
[00:33:50] Helen St. Pierre: Exactly. Exactly. Especially in a, in a short period of time. Right, when you do this day after day after day, you, you can't be asking for thousands to help you every single day. There are some rescues that do that, but we're not a huge facility or shelter. Like we, we're a small privately done, you know, family that's doing this. So it's, it's not easy to access that stuff.
[00:34:16] Bob: The fact that criminals stole this money from you really does put the care of an elderly animal at a risk, right?
[00:34:24] Helen St. Pierre: Yes. Absolutely. You know just as it would, if you’d take it from any, anybody that has you know that's trying to do good long-term for animals or people or anything, yeah it absolutely, it literally takes the money from the, or the, the food out of those dogs' mouths. That's, that's what it does, you know and someone said recently, they're like "Well you're going to have to close." I'm like, no, we will take out four credit cards if we needed to, like this, this is what, before we were a 501c3, Jake and I were doing all of this on our own. We would raise--, we would just work extra hard, or Jake would a extra job, or we would put it on a credit card. But we rely now, because we have so many dogs, we literally rely on those donations, so yes, it's taking money out, taking food out of their mouths.
[00:35:10] Bob: This kind of crime, getting a text that looks like it’s from the bank followed by a call that impersonates a bank fraud department is now called a bank copycat fraud. "This crime is skyrocketing," says the Federal Trade Commission. The agency recently issued a report about it.
[00:35:28] Sophia Siddiqui: Consumers lost $330 million in 2022 to text message scams, and the item that we're talking about today, copycat bank fraud, was the top text message scam reported in that year. Reports about fake text message, text messages impersonating banks have been up nearly 20-fold since 2019.
[00:35:51] Bob: I mean 20-fold! I, I don't remember anyone telling me about a crime that's up 20-fold in just a couple of years; that sounds remarkable.
[00:35:59] Sophia Siddiqui: Yes, it's very interesting.
[00:34:52] Bob: That's Sophia Siddiqui, an FTC lawyer who talked with us about the crime and the report. She's been working in federal law enforcement for a couple of decades, first at the Justice Department and now at the FTC.
[00:36:14] Bob: Can I just get you to, I mean it's, it's terrible when anyone has money stolen from them, but a, an organization that takes care of dogs who are dying. That just seems like a next-level horrible kind of crime to me.
[00:36:26] Sophia Siddiqui: Oh, I mean this was a, this was a horrible story. It, there obviously, this non-profit takes care of senior dogs in hospice.
[00:36:36] Bob: "Bank copycat frauds work in part because texting is cheap," she said.
[00:36:41] Sophia Siddiqui: One of the very big scams that has increased our impersonation scams, so consumers report losing money to scams where people will impersonate a bank or the government, or a financial firm. So you'll see a lot of Amazon imposter scams, Social Security Administration, IRS, et cetera, and you'll get a call where someone pretends to be the government and say, you know, tells you that the IRS, they're an IRS agent and your, you owe money to the government, and it's urgent that you pay them now or you know Amazon, there's a suspicious charge on your Amazon account. These have increased quite a bit. We think, you know, texting is cheap, people are constantly on their phones, so that's likely the reason we've seen an uptick in these types of scams. And in addition, reports about text scams spiked during COVID because people were looking for alternative sources of income.
[00:37:40] Bob: Also criminals know that cellphone users are very likely to open text messages, even more than emails.
[00:37:47] Sophia Siddiqui: If people have access to their phones all the time and they're looking at texts versus you know, people aren't leaving voicemails these days or talking by phone as much. And we have, you can see oftentimes when something is a spam call so people aren't picking up those calls as much.
[00:38:04] Bob: And it takes almost nothing to respond to a spam text, right, just a little flick of the wrist.
[00:38:10] Sophia Siddiqui: Yes, exactly.
[00:38:12] Bob: There is something else very worrisome about bank copycat frauds. They are very, very profitable for criminals.
[00:38:21] Bob: The other number that just popped out at me is the median loss for this particular scam we're talking about is $3000 which seems enormous to me.
[00:38:29] Sophia Siddiqui: I mean these, these types of losses can be really large, oftentimes... I mean like you saw in, in this case that we're discussing today with Old Dogs Go to Helen, the nonprofit, if a scammer calls about a bank account, they can very easily with your authorization rip off your, the proceeds of your entire bank account, you know, within minutes, so or, you know, take your personal identity information easily on the phone. So the median losses can get very high.
[00:39:02] Bob: The crime is successful because the text messages seem so real.
[00:39:08] Bob: And what struck me about the story is, you know, everything was so believable. Uh, we've all gotten messages from our bank saying, you know, "Is this your transaction?" Something along those lines, and then when the, the call, they, they have new information about them, the call will appear to come from Bank of America. Have these crimes become more sophisticated lately?
[00:39:28] Sophia Siddiqui: Yes, um, scammers have gone to great lengths to look more authentic by know, knowing more about you. They may call and already know your bank account number or other personal details, which makes consumers trust them. They may sound more legitimate, like in this case, because, you know, they already were calling from Bank of America which the non-profit used as their bank of choice, and they also used a lot of the same language and the procedures that Bank of America already uses. So they were sort of skilled in the trade so to speak. So yes, it can be really confusing for consumers.
[00:40:07] Bob: And it makes sense to me then that this crime works, criminals copy each other, and now it's up 20-fold in the last two or three years. That's, that just shows it must be very effective, right?
[00:40:19] Sophia Siddiqui. Pierre: Yes, definitely. You know, that's why consumers are reporting losing a lot of money to imposter scams.
[00:40:26] Bob: So how can you protect yourself from bank copycat fraud?
[00:40:31] Sophia Siddiqui: You should never trust the caller ID. Those can be faked, so although it may say it's from, uh your phone may say it's from Bank of America, the caller ID could definitely be faked. And most important, or one of the most important things is to check with a real agency person or company. Do not use the phone number that you're given by the alert, like the text message or the message that you get. You should look up the real number yourself, so use the--, use, for example, the number on the back of your Bank of America debit card to call Bank of America and see if there was a suspicious charge on your account.
[00:41:16] Bob: What should banks be doing about this kind of crime?
[00:41:19] Sophia Siddiqui: Well I think that the banks are definitely working to educate consumers along with the FTC. And they're engaging in consumer education. They also are tracking these types of fraud and working on analytics to reduce, reduce these types of frauds.
[00:41:39] Bob: I should say we reached out to Bank of America about this story but did not receive a response by the time this podcast was released. What should cellphone companies do about bank copycat fraud?
[00:41:51] Sophia Siddiqui: Well, cellphone providers, that's interesting. I mean in terms of robocalls, the FTC has been working very hard to reduce the amount of robocalls. We have filed a lot of actions in federal court. We've been going after telemarketers as well as VoIP providers who carry the calls in order to reduce these. And I think that cellphone providers have done some things. I mean they do block certain spam calls, but more needs to be done because this has become a huge overwhelming problem that consumers are getting um, millions and millions of calls from scammers as well. A lot of, there are compliance procedures and calls are blocked, but, you know, we need to do a better job with that.
[00:42:42] Bob: And I have to say I mean I get um, warnings now from my phone that are pretty effective that say this is a possible um, spam call or a possible fraud. Um, I, I don't get those kinds of warning on text messages. Is that the kind of thing that people are working on?
[00:42:57] Sophia Siddiqui: Yeah, I think that it took a lot to get to the point where phone calls could be blocked and we are, we have worked on robocalls and we're trying to reduce those as well through policy measures as well as enforcement measures. So I think text messages is just going to be the next wave of things that, that get dealt with. Technologically, I don't think that phone providers have gotten to the point where those are automatically blocked yet, but I think you'll see that very soon.
[00:43:31] Bob: I sure hope so. I know we all hate getting spam texts, but it won't be soon enough for Helen and her house full of elder dogs. We checked right before publishing this episode and she's still dealing with the mess made by her criminal.
[00:43:46] Helen St. Pierre: The way that it stands is all of my accounts, like 'cause it, I had 7 accounts prior when I went in on that Saturday. We closed, technically closed all of those accounts and reopened another 6 so that I could move to keep everything safe. So right now with Bank of America, I have 13 accounts, and 7 of them are not usable. They're just sitting there frozen because of going through this. And so my main issue is, if I continue to fight this, I can't access. I, I'm, I've, I'm literally, I've been living off with my hands tied for let's see it's mid-August now, so this happened... so for two months.
[00:44:25] Bob: And here comes a bit of irony. Extra security measures make it much harder for Helen to move money between her accounts now.
[00:44:33] Helen St. Pierre: I can call and I can move it, so I can't, because the accounts are in a deposit only status, I can call and I can move it, but I have to call the Fraud Department.
[00:44:44] Bob: Oh my God!
[00:44:45] Helen St. Pierre: I, exactly, right. So I'm on the phone for two hours, you know and it's just, it's just, it's a, it's a nightmare. It's been a complete and total nightmare.
[00:44:55] Bob: What has Helen learned from this experience?
[00:44:58] Helen St. Pierre: Honestly, I was completely and totally naive to how bad this has been and how much has been going on, you know. And, and so this is happening all over the place, and that was one of the reasons that I went so public with it, you know. Because if it can happen to, to, to me, and I'm, I am, by no means am I like, you know, but I, I've dealt with my money very carefully and I've been very, very good about dotting my I's and crossing my T's and if, if they could do that to me, I could only imagine what they could do to other people as well, and if I didn't speak up about what had happened, other people could be very, very much the victims of this. And they may not have the same a--, ability with social media to reach people the way that I could.
[00:45:43] Bob: And we're very grateful that you are, because I, I know for certain from where I sit and the people that I talk to every week, yeah, this is happening all the time to tons of people, and it's really hurting them.
[00:45:54] Bob: What do you, I mean obviously you're passionate about going public with this, and I think that's great. What is it you really want people to know?
[00:46:01] Helen St. Pierre: Um, I, I think at this point what I have learned and what I wish people also could learn as well, or know now, and, and it's funny, because since I've gone public, I cannot tell you how many messages I've gotten from people saying, "Helen, I got a text from my bank, and I didn't believe it now because of what you said. And sure enough, I went in and it wasn't real..." is to understand that the people that are capable of doing these scams and doing that now are ex--, much, their sophistication is matching the, these banks' level of sophistication. And so do not trust anything digitally anymore. Even the phone calls, like just don't trust anything. Hang up, call them back. Ask to speak to that exact person, like or go in, in-person with anything that is result--, revolving around potential theft. You know they will, they will feed off and, and prey on your panic and fear to make it just go away. So don't trust anything at this point digitally with, with your banks when they send you those texts. I certainly have learned that now.
[00:47:09] And it's smart to think about scams before one lands at your door.
[00:47:15] Helen St. Pierre: I think the most important thing now and like I said, that was something that I learned was ask. Before it happens to you, ask your bank what their protocol looks like. Ask them straight up. Say, "If I, if I ended up tomorrow getting a scam where someone was able to access my account and take thousands of dollars out, how would your bank handle that? What was that going to look like for me? Are you going to immediately credit me those funds back while you work on an investigation? Like how does that look?" Because you know those are things that again, I just, I wouldn't ask that. I just want to know what my monthly fees are going to look like and, and do I have access to, to move this or how can I, you know, if I need to cancel a card, or can I order my checks online. But this is something now that people have to be able to understand that the way that the bank handles it to me now, it's so common that they should have a really good protocol in place that is human, that the victim-friendly, not the bank-friendly, but the victim-friendly.
[00:48:14] Bob: Banks should be human-friendly. Should be victim-friendly. Because Helen deserves, we all deserve to be cared for the way Old Dogs Go to Helen cares for its residents.
[00:48:40] 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. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is: email@example.com, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, 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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