Woman victim of $20,000 scam urges SC banks to use new fraud prevention law

ANDERSON COUNTY, SC (WSPA) – Financial fraud can strike anyone, but too often the elderly are targets.

In South Carolina alone, consumer analysts at Comparitech uncovered 3,700 senior fraud cases in 2019, with a loss of $67 million. And that’s why SC lawmakers recently gave financial institutions the power to protect vulnerable adults from exploitation.

Polly Fehler of Anderson County is the kind of woman who pays off her credit cards every month and even makes extra payments on her mortgage.

“I thought I was smart enough not to spend money and not be stupid and fall for nothing and I didn’t fall, I fell to hell with it,” Fehler said.

It all started in April 2021 when the Seneca senior was on public Wi-Fi and received an alarming pop-up on her computer.

“I saw an orange triangle with an explanation next to it saying the computer was compromised, with a phone number underneath it,” she said.

Fehler now understands that the hackers, claiming to be with Microsoft, got remote access to his computer under the guise of fixing the problem for a few hundred dollars. Over the next two months, they watched his every move, including online banking.

Then in June, they went hunting.

Fehler said the bogus company called to say they ultimately couldn’t resolve their issue and offered a refund.

“All of these things on the screen kept scrolling. All of a sudden my checking account came up, and I had $6,000 on it and all of a sudden there’s $26,000. And I said how it got there. And he said we sent it back like you sent it,” Fehler said.

As the scam went on, they claimed they had accidentally put in too many zeros and insisted she pay them back, telling her to wire the money immediately.

“I pay my bills, I didn’t know what else to do, and if there’s $20,000 in an account that’s not mine, I don’t want it there,” she says.

Her bank helped her transfer this money despite red flags as the destination, which was Vietnam.

It’s because of stories like Fehler’s that last year South Carolina lawmakers passed the Protecting Vulnerable Adults from Financial Abuse Act. It allows banks to stop transactions that appear suspicious so they can be investigated.

Susan Ingles, senior counsel in the SC Legal Department, said she was surprised that Fehler’s bank, USAA, approved the international wire transfer.

“You hope any institution would use this law to stop a transaction that seems so strange,” Ingles said.

But Ingles added that the law, which had been in effect for a month at the time of Fehler’s wire transfer, also states that banks cannot be held liable for scams that slip through the cracks.

The USAA sent us a statement which reads in part:

“Members are made aware of the risk of fraud, particularly in the case of an international bank transfer, and are asked a series of questions about the purpose of the transfer and the recipient in order to help identify fraud and other criminal activity . We have confirmed that our processes were followed in this case.

Yet part of the problem is that scammers know banks are getting suspicious and they tell their victims exactly what to say. And although victims may not realize why, financial institutions that see so many scams can include this reality in their training so that employees can help unravel the answers that scammers ask their victims to say.

The law grants financial institutions immunity from detaining the transaction if the bank is acting in good faith and its decision is based on the evidence available to it at the time. Those who disrupt transactions should report it to adult protective services or law enforcement to investigate.

Scam twist

But what about the $20,000? You might be as shocked as Fehler to learn that the funds came from his own home equity line of credit. His balance was zero for more than a decade, but the hackers exploited him and transferred the money to his checking account. Now she is on the hook.

Fehler admits to being a victim of the scam, but we also asked her if she felt her bank had dropped the ball.

“Yeah, I felt they should have backed me up. They should have let me know, an email or a notice or something like that, a call that they were approving a $20,000 loan on that account that I didn’t use,” she said.

“I think this is a perfect example of an account that maybe has been inactive for a long time and all of a sudden this large amount of money should come out of that inactive account, wait a minute let’s talk to the customer and ask for a little more, or go ahead and suspend the account because it’s weird,” Ingles said.

Now Fehler fears losing his home.

“It’s devastating to have something like this, and it’s a lot of money,” she said.

Over the past few weeks, 7NEWS has spoken with the USAA about the status of its case. We’ll let you know if anything changes.

All she can do is warn others about the scam and hope financial institutions make full use of the new law, knowing that its protections are only as good as the systems in place to spot red flags.

So what are the red flags?

  • computer pop-up
  • Impersonate a well-known company
  • Pressure to act fast
  • Request a bank transfer

On that last note, any caller requesting a wire transfer or payment via some type of gift card is only looking for one thing, untraceable money.

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