OCONEE COUNTY, S.C. (WSPA) – Financial fraud can hit anyone, but all too often seniors are targets.
In South Carolina alone, consumer analysts with Comparitech found 3,700 cases of elder fraud in 2019, with a loss of $67 million. And that is why SC lawmakers have recently given financial institutions the power to protect vulnerable adults from exploitation.
Polly Fehler, in Oconee County, is the type of woman to pay off her credit cards every month, and even make extra payments on her mortgage.
“I thought I was pretty smart to not spend any money and not being foolish and not falling for anything and I didn’t just fall, I went down to hell with this,” said Fehler.
It all started back in April of 2021 when the Seneca senior was on public Wi-Fi and got an alarming pop-up on her computer.
“I saw a triangle that was orange with an explanation beside it that said computer compromised, with a phone number below,” she said.
Fehler now understands the hackers, claiming to be with Microsoft, gained remote access to her computer under the guise of fixing the issue for a few hundred dollars. Over the next two months, they were watching her every move including online banking.
Then in June, they went in the for the kill.
Fehler said the bogus company had called to say they couldn’t fix her problem after all and offered a refund.
“All of these things on the screen kept flipping through. All of a sudden, my checking account appeared, and I had $6000 in it and all of a sudden it says $26,000. And I said how did that get there. And he said we returned it the way you sent it,” said Fehler.
As the scam goes, they claimed to have 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 said.
Her bank helped her wire that money despite red flags like the destination, which was Vietnam.
It’s because of stories like Fehler’s that this past year South Carolina lawmakers passed the Protection of Vulnerable Adults from Financial Exploitation Act. It allows banks to halt transactions that seem suspicious so they can be investigated.
Susan Ingles, the Senior Staff Attorney with SC Legal Service, said she was surprised Fehler’s bank, USAA, approved the international wire transfer.
“You would hope that any institution would utilize this law to stop a transaction that looks this strange,” said Ingles.
But Ingles added that the law, which had been in effect for one month at the time of Fehler’s wire transfer, also states banks cannot be held accountable for scams that slip through the cracks.
USAA sent us a statement that reads in part:
“Members are informed of the fraud risk, particularly in the case of an international wire transfer, and they 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 confirmed that our processes were followed in this instance.”
Still, part of the problem is that scammers know banks become suspicious and they tell their victims exactly what to say. And while victims don’t 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 tell their victims to say.
The law gives financial institutions immunity from holding the transaction if the bank acts on good faith and its decision is based on the evidence it has at the time. Those who do halt transactions must report it to Adult Protective Services or law enforcement to investigate.
But what about the $20,000? You may be as shocked as Fehler to learn the funds came from her own home equity line of credit. It had a zero balance for over a decade, but the hackers tapped into it and transferred the money into her checking account. Now she’s on the hook.
Fehler admits she fell victim to the scam, but we also asked her if she felt her bank dropped the ball.
“Yes, I felt they should have supported me. They should have let me know, an email, notice, or something, a call that they were approving a $20,000 loan into this account that I didn’t use,” she said.
“I think this is a perfect example of an account that has maybe been dormant for a long time and all of a sudden this big amount of money should come out of this dormant account, wait a minute, let’s talk to the customer and inquire a little more, or just go ahead and put a hold on the account because that’s strange,” said Ingles.
Now Fehler is worried about losing her home.
“It’s devastating to have something happen like this, and that’s a lot of money,” she said.
For the last few weeks, 7NEWS has been talking with USAA about the status of her case. We will keep you updated on whether anything changes.
All she can do is warn others about the scam and hope financial institutions will make full use of the new law, knowing its protections are only as good as the systems in place to spot the red flags.
So, what are the red flags?
- Computer pop-ups
- Impersonating a well-known company
- Pressure to act fast
- Requesting a wire transfer
On that last note, any caller that requests a wire transfer or payment through some type of gift card are only looking for one thing, money that is untraceable.
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