Fraud Alert

The scammers operate on a sense of urgency. They promise refunds from “services provided,” often years prior to the call so it might be difficult to remember the truth of the situation, but the customer must act quickly to receive the cash.

Editor's Note: The following is the latest in a series of updates by The Chronicle and our sister publication, The Chief in Clatskanie, following the developing fraud reports in Columbia County. Our Senior Reporter Julie Thompson found the latest scams are flourishing in the Clatskaine area.

Computer scams that are affecting citizens’ banking information have become so prevalent in the Clatskanie area that Umpqua Bank Manager Monica Hastings contacted The Chronicle in great frustration for the customers she cares for.

“We are probably seeing one case a week of a customer that has been coerced through a story or a situation into letting somebody access their computer to help them or assist,” Hastings said.

When she realized the regularity of these occurrences – requiring customers to undergo the grueling process of canceling bank accounts to set up a new one and reorganize their financials - Hastings stopped by Clatskanie Computers to see if they’d noticed the problem escalating.

“He had four computers lined up,” Hastings said. “He said every single one had come in in the last two days and they needed to be cleaned and fixed. These scammers are really targeting this strongly right now.”

Sense of urgency

The scammers operate on a sense of urgency, Hastings said. They promise refunds from “services provided,” often years prior to the call so it might be difficult to remember the truth of the situation, but the customer must act quickly to receive the cash.

Or, the scammers may tell you that you’ve been hacked, and they can help you protect yourself. Hastings’ mother fell victim to such a scam. They told her via a pop-up screen that her computer had been hacked and it would cost $2,000 to fix it. Hastings’ mother explained her computer itself wasn’t worth that much and, somewhere during the conversation, admitted to a price she might be willing to pay for such a service. Two days later, the scammers called back claiming to be with computer company Hewlett-Packard and they could fix the problem for much less.

“They used that information against her because she accidentally gave them that information in the earlier conversation. So she thought it was a better deal, and ‘Okay, here’s my credit card information,’” Hastings said.

Around the same time, Hastings’ daughter, a college-age student, would have fallen victim to a similar scam had Hastings not walked in and overheard the conversation just before her daughter provided her account information.

Hastings said she’s also seen “sweetheart scams” and those, in particular, break her heart. Also known as “catfishing,” customers become convinced they’ve fallen in love with someone who wants to move to the area to be with them while shelling out thousands to get them here.

Another scam Hastings recalled was an issue where a customer was told their granddaughter was in jail and needed help. Hastings is continually the one to have to break the news to customers that they have been unfortunately duped … their loved ones are fine, and they have been conned.

“They’re targeting everyone, but older people are more susceptible. I really do think that the teenagers are a little savvier, but my daughter panicked because of that fact that, ‘oh my gosh, here’s a problem’ and her whole life is on her computer,” Hastings said. “It does happen to young and old. Our older victims are not as tech savvy and are more willing to accept help. And these scammers do seem very helpful … but they’re going to rob you.”

Walked right into it

Roma Wridge, 78, said she kept getting a call claiming that she had a refund coming from a computer company. She hung up on them for almost two weeks. But one day, she said she didn’t have much going on and decided she’d “play with them a little bit.”

“Push comes to shove, and I bit the bullet. Walked right into it. They outsmarted me, which I’m not saying is a hard thing to do, but they did it very slickly,” Wridge said.

The scammers told Wridge she had $399 coming back to her because they’d overcharged her for computer services three years prior. They told her they’d failed to provide the service they were contracted for and wanted to give her a refund. Wridge said she’d never paid them that money, but they insisted their records proved it.

The scammers told her she needed to get onto her computer and download a form to fill out, which she did. Then Wridge received a call with a stressed voice on the other end asking what she’d put on the form. She told them.

“Evidently, you made a typographical error because the form gives you an automatic credit to your account,” they told her. “You put $1,399 into your account.”

The scammers showed her a bank statement to prove that she’d collected too much money. Hastings said, in reality, the scammers had moved money from Wridge’s savings account to her checking account to create the fraudulent statement.

“They distracted her with other screens that were running in the background,” Hastings said. “Later on, I’m sure they would have moved that money right out of her account to someplace else.”

Luckily, the warning bells went off in Wridge’s mind. She knew it had gotten out of hand. Next, the scammers sent her an email saying the error needed to be corrected immediately or it was going to be a “big tax mess” among other threats. They told her she needed to go to Target or Best Buy and purchase gift cards in the amount of $1,000 to reimburse the company.

“But don’t worry,” the scammer said. “I’ll be on the phone with you the whole time.”

When Wridge explained she didn’t have a way to get to one of those stores, the scammer went so far as to suggest she phone a friend for a ride.

“Wouldn’t that be strange?” She asked. “If I’m riding with a friend and have you on the telephone?”

“Well, what are you going to tell your friend while you go to the store?” He asked.

“That I’m going to do some shopping,” Wridge said.

“When you get to the store, can you get away from her, so you can call me?” The scammer asked.

Wridge, now fully understanding the severity of the situation, told the scammer she’d work it out and give her friend a call. She had no intention of doing so, and in fact had her own car, but she would instead be heading straight to the bank.

“I know they’re being dishonest so I’m not going to worry about being dishonest,” Wridge said.

However, the damage from dealing with the scammers had been done. They had already accessed her bank account, and so the bank had to do the heavy work of cleaning up her accounts and blocking everything.

“We had to go through the juggling that everyone was on automatic pay and had to be re-informed. We had to have new checks printed and cards issued,” Wridge said. “It was a mess.”

Wridge said the scammers continue to call. Now, when the call comes in, she just looks at the number and doesn’t bother to answer.

Protect yourself

Hastings said you should never let someone remotely access your computer unless you’re certain they’re a reputable antivirus company, and if you’re uncertain, call your financial provider first.

Umpqua Bank has now created two additional departments within their fraud awareness operations, strictly to create a separate department for monitoring and preventing scams, and a second department to follow through on disputes.

Any technology, down to a cell phone, that allows a customer to transfer money can now be hacked. For those who are frequent online shoppers, Hastings suggests creating a separate bank account specifically for online purchases.

“Sometimes it’s safer than their entire account having to be shut down and a whole new account having to be opened,” Hastings said. “We’re advising our heavy Amazon shoppers to open a separate account.”

Hastings also cautions customers against filling out those “fun questionnaires” on social media that encourages people to get to know you. Sometimes these questionnaires ask about your first car, your mother’s maiden name, and other personal details that might be similar to questions asked by financial institutions to identify you.

“They ask random questions only you should know, but if you’re answering those on social media then fraudsters have that information now, too,” Hastings said. “I don’t think some people realize that. They think it’s a fun 20 questions, and they are, but you just gave drug dealers and arms dealers all the private questions that you answer for your bank account and the websites you go to.”

On July 4, Umpqua Bank will set up a booth in front of their building to join in the community festivities and will be handing out fraud prevention information and identity theft packets.

Wridge said she thinks she was scammed because she dealt with them out of boredom and didn’t stay on her toes. She said the bank has assured her she wasn’t the first and now assures her she hasn’t been the last.

“My kids have all been saying, ‘Mom, you have to remember, if they call you, it’s not true,’” Wridge said. “That’s not a bad thing to have stuck right above the telephone.”

For more information about this fraud, contact Umpqua Bank Manager Monica Hastings at 503-308-5110. Read more about the scams in our area in a series of continuing reports at thechiefnews.com.

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