Zelle scammers steal thousands of dollars from Maryland woman

A Maryland woman scammed out of thousands of dollars is speaking out in an effort to help others avoid a ploy making the rounds across the country.

Denise, who lives in Charles County, didn’t want to use her last name because she’s still worried about the people who targeted her at the beginning of January.

"I haven’t been able to eat, I haven’t been able to sleep," she said Tuesday.

It all started with a text message that purported to be from her bank, Wells Fargo, that said, ‘Zelle transaction attempted $3500,’ asking her to reply yes or no to verify the charge.

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She replied, ‘no,’ and moments later, her phone rang. The man said he was with Wells Fargo and someone was trying to steal $3,500 from her via Zelle, but luckily they caught it in time and there was a simple solution.

He didn’t ask her to click a link or give a bank account number, instead, he instructed Denise to log into her Zelle account and send $3,500 back to herself to "reverse the transaction."

Denise said she had a moment where she doubted what he was telling her, and she asked him to verify his identity.

"I said, ‘I need something where nobody else knows, but an inside person.’ And he said, ‘You just made a transaction. You transferred the money from your savings to your checking.’ And he told me the exact amount. And I thought, ‘Well, OK.’"


Sgt. Michael Smith, who leads the financial crimes division at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, says the caller was likely in Denise’s bank account already. He said scammers can access banks accounts from information they get on the dark web or through data breaches.

"These people are employed by major operations to get this information to use this information against you," Smith said. "Sometimes it’s overseas, sometimes it’s domestic."

He says scammers will say whatever it takes to gain your trust and take advantage of what you tell them. And while $3,500 is a lot of money, Smith said his office is currently investigating a case where a victim lost $600,000 over time to a scammer.

Sgt. Smith says the most important thing to remember, if you have even one moment of doubt, don’t do it.

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"If you hesitate for a second on anything, if it doesn’t seem right, don’t pay it," said Smith.

Denise says that the money she lost was supposed to go to home repairs, and she still can’t believe it’s up in smoke.

"I’m a single mom, I work hard every day," she said. "That’s a lot of money for me."

She said it’s frustrating Wells Fargo has told her the money can’t be refunded because it was a Zelle transaction; even though the bank, and several others, are partners with Zelle.

The scam has become so common, Wells Fargo has started warning customers about it. Customers at other banks have also reported being scammed the same way.

In a statement, Wells Fargo says:

"It’s disheartening that scammers are actively pursuing and defrauding victims. We never want to see anyone become a victim of a scam, and we want to make sure everyone is aware that criminals can spoof a caller ID number so it appears as if a call or text is from your bank. To be safe, don’t respond. Contact your bank using legitimate sources, such as the number on the back of your debit card.
Although it may not always be possible to recover the funds on behalf of victims, Wells Fargo works together with other financial institutions and law enforcement to help identify suspects and recover funds when possible."

The bank is sharing these tips with customers:

Watch out for scammers who may be able to spoof a phone number, so the caller ID appears as if the call is from your bank.

Know that your bank will only send you a code when prompted by an action that you’ve initiated, such as signing on to online banking, sending money, or when you call us directly. DO NOT share your access code, PIN, or passcode with anyone who contacts you requesting it.

Don’t send money to "receive a refund" or "reverse a transfer." Remember, the bank has your account information.

If you receive a code to authorize any amount of money (even $.01) to be transferred or another transaction you didn’t initiate, don’t enter the code in your bank app or share it with anyone, even if they claim to be from your bank.

UPDATE: The woman interviewed says Wells Fargo refunded her money a month after FOX 5 covered her story. She contacted FOX 5's Lindsay Watts saying, "I have great news, my pot of gold was returned on St. Patrick's Day. Wells Fargo returned every penny!! I can't thank you enough for assistance with this matter. Also, getting this information out to the public has helped so many people that I am aware of."