WASHINGTON (7News) — When Rachel Sturm got a voicemail message from a man claiming to be with law enforcement in Howard County, she checked it out.
The number associated with the missed call matched that of the Howard County Sheriff’s Office and she found the officer’s name on LinkedIn.
“The name, the badge numbers, everything they gave me, on Google, checks out,” she said.
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The voicemail said in part, “It’s very important that I speak with you today about an ongoing matter, so I do need you to give me a call back as soon as possible. I’m going to be leaving the office momentarily so you can reach me back on my cell device.”
While everything else checked out, the cell number didn’t go to an officer -- It went to a scammer who told Sturm she had missed jury duty. She was skeptical, but the scammer had an excuse for everything. He even claimed law enforcement was reaching out because of problems with the mail.
“They said, there's been 150 other people that they've spoken with this week that also claimed they didn't get it in the mail. And that's why they're making the phone calls,” Sturm said. “There was either a bench warrant out for my arrest, or I could pay the fines.”
She said the scammer also told her she’d meet with a judge and might get her money back.
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“I could pay the fines and then I have a Zoom meeting with a judge. If I show up for that Zoom meeting, the funds are refunded to me. And then it's dropped off my record,” she said.
Sturm said she sent two $1,500 payments using her bank’s Zelle transfer service. Shortly after the scammer hung up, the call disconnected and Sturm soon realized something was wrong.
7News On Your Side’s Lindsey Mastis spoke with Howard County Sheriff Marcus Harris about how to avoid these incidents.
“One thing I can tell you here at the sheriff's office, we would never ask you to pay a fine over the phone,” he said. “That's a scam. That's a scam, definitely.”
The scam is frustrating for Sheriff Harris. He said some scammers have even pretended to be him.
“The people that call the victims will use my name, and not just my name. They’ve used other deputies' names.”
Sturm said a week after the scammers stole $3,000 from her, they tried again using a different officer’s name. She was able to record part of the conversation with her iPad. She shared it with 7 News.
“Each of these citations carry up to $2,500 in fines, seven days incarceration or both,” the man said.
“It sounds 100 percent legit,” Sturm said.
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Shortly after making the original transaction, Sturm reached out to her bank Wells Fargo, and to Zelle. She said neither is willing to reimburse her even though it’s a case of fraud. Sturm is now considering either filing a lawsuit or joining a class-action lawsuit to force banks to refund her money.
Zelle sent 7News the following statement:
“Zelle is not a financial institution and does not hold or transfer consumer’s money, or maintain consumer accounts. Instead money is sent directly from the sender’s to the receiver’s financial institution, and settlement of transactions made using Zelle is handled directly between the sender’s and receiver’s financial institutions. As a result, Zelle is not in a position to recover the viewer’s funds.”
Wells Fargo sent 7News the following statement:
“It’s heartbreaking when anyone falls victim to a scam, and it’s a priority for us to help people avoid scams. We’re actively working to raise awareness to prevent these incidents, which includes providing alerts to customers when they open and use Zelle in the Wells Fargo Mobile app and Online Banking to be on the lookout for scams, and to only send money to people they know and trust. When a customer files a claim, Wells Fargo has a thorough investigation process to research the customer’s claim, and we communicate the findings directly to our customer.”
The scams aren’t just happening in Howard County but throughout the country.
You can tell 7News On Your Side’s Call For Action about any scams in your area to help warn others. Fill out the form at wjla.com/callforaction. Law enforcement also wants victims to come forward so detectives have a better chance of tracking down the scammers.
“Payment apps should not treat victims as co-conspirators in the fraud. They should refund the money back to victims, especially in these financially trying times," according to the Howard County Office of Consumer Protection.
TIPS TO AVOID FRAUD FROM WELLS FARGO:
TIPS TO AVOID FRAUD FROM ZELLE: