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New phone scam hits Pagosa Country

Hundreds of local cell phone customers received calls last week from scammers attempting to convince customers to give up banking information or bank card numbers.

Called “vishing,” the term combines “voice” and phishing because the scam uses a phone system attempting to convince victims to enter in sensitive banking or ATM card information.

In this latest scam, customers were contacted by an automated system, either claiming that the customer’s bank account had been compromised by someone making unauthorized withdrawals from the account or that the customer’s bank card had been deactivated. The automated message then directed customers to enter in account information (either an account or bank card number), date of birth and PIN number.

Just two months ago, hundreds of cell phone customers throughout the Four Corners area received unsolicited text messages claiming discrepancies in the customers’ bank accounts and then directing recipients to call an 800 number to resolve those issues. After calling, customers were prompted to enter in bank card information along with other personal information (pin numbers, social security numbers, date of birth, etc.), risking not just a depleted bank account, but also credit card theft and identity theft.

January’s scam differed from the latest theft attempt in that customers of Bank of the San Juans were specifically targeted by vishers. Furthermore, the text message sent out to customers directed callers to an 800 number (disabled soon after authorities learned of the scam).

Local residents hit by last week’s scam were given the opportunity to give up their information directly, however, and there was no second step required by victims to potentially lose vital, confidential information.

The scam was also different from January’s scam in that, while customers of specific banks were targeted (Pine River Valley Bank, Bank of Colorado or First National Bank of Durango), customers of other banks were confused by the calls. In one version of the call, the automated introductory message from “Pine River Bank Security” led some customers from other banks to think they were getting a call from a third-party security company, leading them to provide the automated system with bank or bank card information. It was only after hanging up did those customers have second thoughts to then contact either bank officials or law enforcement to learn that they had done something they probably should not have done.

Detective Rich Valdez said, “We had eight calls on the scam and a couple of them did give up credit card or debit card information.”

The calls, showing up on phones as a four-digit number, were almost impossible to trace. However, Valdez added that, despite numerous calls placed to residents throughout the area, no money was reported lost, a sign that people are becoming more aware of the scams.

Cristie Drumm, spokesperson from Wells Fargo Bank, said that, locally, “The branch got very few calls and none were impacted.”

Drumm did add that customers should remember to never give out bank or card information in response to an unsolicited call or e-mail, as the bank will never contact a customer out of the blue and request that information — indeed, the bank already has that information on file.

“They should only give out their information if they initiate the call and are confident that the person they’re speaking with works for the bank,” she said.

Unfortunately, while the calls themselves indicate a crime, law enforcement will not pursue prosecution unless actual money is lost — and then, the crime can be very difficult to prosecute.

In January’s scam, the text messages originated from Eastern Europe. According to Dave Joly, spokesman for the Colorado FBI, “It’s difficult to prosecute in foreign countries. Although we work with other countries and their law enforcement on cases, we have no jurisdiction to investigate or make arrests.”

Joly said that the FBI does become involved in high-dollar domestic cases of fraud, but that recent phone scams rarely involve theft of more than a few hundred dollars. However, that does not mean the FBI does not address phone scam (and other fraud) cases. Joly said that the FBI maintains a Web site for victims of Internet crimes, but that the site can also be used for phone scams. Victims can enter in information at www.ic3.gov to report either Internet or phone scams.

“The problem is,” Joly said, “too often people don’t report they’ve been taken advantage of because they’re embarrassed to admit they got taken. The anonymity of the Internet seems to make people more willing to report the crime.”

That no local residents were unfortunate enough to have lost money in last week’s phone scam is a hopeful indication that people are becoming savvy to thieves attempting to use cell phones to carry out their crimes. To prevent having to go to the FBI’s Web site and fill out a crime report, a few simple, common sense reminders need to be remembered:

• A bank will never call a customer requesting to verify account or credit card information.

• If someone calls claiming to be from the bank, terminate the call and immediately call the bank to see if their was a legitimate reason for the bank to call.

• Again, never provide account or card information unless you make the call, to a known bank phone number.

jim@pagosasun.com