Detroit Free Press
Published 5:00 PM EDT Sep 22, 2018
DETROIT – Tracey Taschereau tried over and over again to find a quick loan online. And somehow, the scammers figured out she was desperate.
Taschereau, 48, had trouble paying everything from payday loans to utility bills to the property taxes owed on a home she was buying on a land contract in Dearborn Heights, Michigan.
Her bank account had but $100 or $200. She only had seasonal part-time work in a school cafeteria. So she searched online for loans made to people in tough spots.
And she was rejected each time.
“I have real bad credit, so the payday loans are hard to get, too,” Taschereau said.
All of a sudden, though, she got an email out of the blue in early February from an outfit called Ace Cash Express saying she was approved for a loan.
“OK, great, somebody is finally willing to lend me money that I need,” she thought. “They asked for my bank account information, and like a dummy I gave it to them, hoping this was my godsend.”
But things only got much, much worse.
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Gaming the banking system
Crooks are running an elaborate scheme that targets consumers who are financially vulnerable. Some are so financially distressed that they will cast aside pretty big red flags on the hope that they can get their hands on some money to pay the bills.
The con artists are gaming the banking system by sending fake paper checks or electronically depositing phony checks in consumer accounts.
The consumer thinks the check is real and believes it is OK to wire money or send money via gift cards for an essential, make-believe reason. In loan scams, con artists claim you need to give back money immediately as a step for building credit to obtain a bigger loan.
“In the end, I was supposed to be getting a $4,000 or $5,000 loan,” Taschereau said.
In reality, she ended up being scammed and owing her bank more than $4,800.
Chase shut down her access to her bank account. At the same time, Chase was allowed under its agreement to use money being electronically deposited into that account – in this case a monthly Social Security benefits check for $513 for her young daughter – toward gradually paying off that debt.
What about those red flags?
Many people, of course, love to engage in victim-shaming. Who falls for this kind of stuff anyway? And gets tripped up over and over again?
Yet the crooks only use that shaming to keep victims quiet. Some days, it can take a brave person to admit to getting trapped.
Taschereau certainly isn't alone. I heard from one young consumer who lost money in a similar way when she wanted to get a loan to pay for a wedding. Another who had served in the military called me as he frantically headed to the bank to unravel how much money he and his wife just lost as they tried to get an online loan. One senior thought he found a way to both boost his credit score and easily borrow $1,000 online but told me he ended up being scammed out of $500.
Fast cash isn't the only bait. Fake checks are used as part of all sorts of scams, including work-at-home schemes, phony sweepstakes and lotteries, small-business fraud and even scams that target law firms, according to a detailed report titled "Don't Cash that Check" issued by the Better Business Bureau in September.
Upset with herself, Taschereau sits in the living room of the home she moved to recently in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She rummages through an envelope filled with Best Buy gift cards, notes she made talking to the people who promised a loan, paper copies of the bad checks and letters from the bank telling her that her account is past due.
The first email with an offer for a loan looked real.
“I looked up Ace Cash Express, and it was a legitimate company," she said.
Now she knows that scammers impersonated a well-known company that markets payday loans and cash advances. The real company is aware that fraudsters have used its name in the past.
If only she listened to Matthew at Mike’s Party Store in Dearborn Heights. He was the first to warn of a scam when she initially tried to send $900 via Western Union from the store.
"They target all people," Elias Konja, one of the owners of Mike's Party Store told me when I called.
At least once a week, Konja – who is Matthew's brother – told me that he and others at the store personally beg people not to wire money for something that's clearly a scam.
Sometimes, someone who has a good heart wants to wire a $1,000 after they've heard a sad story, like a tale about a well-loved dog that needs surgery.
A few times, Konja has told customers to give him the phone number of the person who wants all that money. He'll set them straight. No one usually answers the phone.
“Are you sure you know who this is?” Taschereau remembers the clerk at Mike's asking.
Taschereau fibbed and told him that she knew. Earlier, the people who offered the loan prepared her to say she had known them for five years and saw them in the past year.
Somehow, though, the wire transfer didn't go through. Another red flag.
If only, Taschereau thinks, she had paid attention to some warnings along the way.
“I was so desperate, I let it cloud my judgment,” she said.
Instead, she went to Kroger to put money on gift cards, as the scammers suggested.
“They said I could buy Steam, Google Play, Best Buy or Amazon.” She opted for Best Buy.
If only she listened to the supermarket cashier who had tried to warn her, too.
Her debit card even was stopped during the transaction. She had to call the bank first to confirm that she was using the card, not someone who had stolen the card.
She made the call to Chase and ended up buying her first round of $900 in Best Buy gift cards. She would later read off the numbers on the back of the card to give the scammers fast access to the cash – money she'd be on the hook to repay to the bank.
“I’m smart enough. I should have known better,” she said last week.
As part of the first installment, scammers told Taschereau that she could keep about $45 now to pay some bills. That money, of course, wasn't real either. Yet she kept up contact with the scammers who kept contacting her, using her account number to make more phony deposits and demanding she buy more gift cards.
"I did this like three or four times," she said.
How did scammers get the money?
Some suspect that scammers might even know that some consumers, such as Taschereau, are down on their luck.
Maybe the consumer's email was hacked and emails indicate you've been rejected for loans earlier or tried to get loans in the past, said Al Pascual, senior vice president, research and head of fraud and security for Javelin Strategy & Research.
Or maybe you've searched for a loan on a fake website. Or some other database could have been hacked.
The con artists know how to game the banking system – and take advantage of consumers who don't know how checks are processed.
"The No. 1 message that is important for people to understand is that just because the check has cleared doesn't mean it's good," said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president, consumer protection and payments for the American Bankers Association, which works with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission to alert consumers on fake check scams.
Scammers will rush you to send money immediately via gift card or Western Union. The scammers need to you act fast – fast enough so that the bank doesn't have a few days to discover that the check is a phony.
What many consumers overlook is that the bank does have the right to recover the money from the account holder if the check is a counterfeit, according to the BBB report. And you will end up on the hook.
Feddis said banks make that money available quickly when a check is deposited because most checks are good and many times people need their money quickly. So the fraudsters exploit the consumer's trust and the banking process.
Now that checks can be deposited by mobile phone, it's even more important that you don't share your bank account number. Feddis said the electronic deposit of fake checks is an "emerging trend."
Don't give your bank account information to anyone. "You're giving the keys to your account. You authorized it," Feddis said.
While consumers are on the hook for money wired or spent out of their checking accounts when a fake check is deposited, banks are getting hit, too.
The American Bankers Association noted that in many cases, victims don't have the money in their accounts to cover the money lost as part of fake check frauds. Sometimes, banks must absorb these losses.
In 2016, check frauds cost banks $789 million, an increase of more than 25 percent from 2014. According to the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel data, consumers reporting fake check scams in 2017 indicated they lost about $25 million. The FTC received 24,437 such complaints last year. Many do not report their losses at all.
A Chase spokesperson said the bank runs millions of checks through its system daily and has "robust tools in place to detect and stop potential fraud deposits."
"We regret that Ms. Taschereau fell victim to a scam," the spokesperson said. "We work with local law enforcement whenever appropriate on potential or confirmed fraud cases. We also rely on our customers to know who they're doing business with and be especially vigilant when asked to provide account information."
Experts say people need to talk to their bankers before wiring money or putting money on gift cards. When people receive paper checks, the fake checks can look real to a degree – but some hold clues to a scam.
The company name or address could be wrong. If it's a check for lottery winnings, why is it from a company or bank instead of the lottery commission?
Don't kid yourself: Scammers use phony payroll checks, regular checks, cashier's checks and money orders, too.
Hindsight, of course, can trigger all sorts should-have-known moments.
Taschereau now questions: Why, really, would the supposed loan company tell her that the Federal Deposit Insurance Company needed proof that she'd repay the money in the future?
“I should have known the FDIC would never do that.”
And take that electronically deposited check.
“I never saw the physical check. They were all direct-deposited," Taschereau said.
But if only, she says she would have gone online earlier she might have noticed that the first check that was deposited on Feb. 2 was supposedly a payroll check from a company called MedRx Paymaster in Livonia, Michigan.
She knows she never worked there. While there is a MedRx Pharmacy in the area, the check said "Paymaster."
Taschereau, who reported the fraud to the BBB, said she didn't mind admitting to the problem because, frankly, she knows other people are worse off.
Even if she couldn't get her money back, she wants others to know what can happen when you're so desperate for cash that you'll believe anyone.
Contact Susan Tompor: [email protected] or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.