Zelle scammers use stolen personal information from breaches, ‘dark web’ to trick bank customers

SAN FRANCISCO — In a widespread scam, bank imposters are tricking people into sending them money with Zelle, the popular quick payment app.

The scam has been going on across the country for more than a year.

Now more are coming forward – among the latest is a San Francisco man who says the imposters knew all of his banking information, which led him into the trap. He said the shock was more than he could handle.

“I had a panic attack,” said the victim, San Francisco resident Eduardo Carrascosa. “I just couldn’t believe, I just couldn’t believe it… $3,500 is a lot of money.”

That’s how much he lost, in an instant, back in June. Carrascosa says it happened while he was busy at work, managing shipping at a time when companies are trying to unclog the supply chain.

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“I got a call from ‘Bank of America,'” he said, using air quotes as he said the bank name. At the time, he thought it really was his bank.

The irony here: the imposters told him scammers had changed his Zelle account to send themselves money. In fact, that is exactly what the imposters themselves were doing. Thousands of dollars, gone in an instant.

A woman on the phone said someone was transferring $3,500 out of his bank account. Was he the one authorizing it?

“No, that’s not me, go ahead and cancel it,” Carrascosa said he replied. “Let me get back to my work.”

But the woman said he had to quickly reverse the transaction, or he’d lose his money.

“So I started to, you know, red flags,” Carrascosa recalls. “So, I googled the number that was calling me.”

Carrascosa was suspicious, but a Google search showed the caller ID on his phone was a real Bank of America phone number. Then, a man came on the phone, supposedly the woman’s supervisor.

Carrascosa said he kept quizzing the man, trying to determine if he really was a banker.

“I thought I was outsmarting them,” Carrascosa recalls. “I usually don’t make customer service reps answer all those questions but I was suspicious.”

He said the man answered all the questions correctly. “He knew my debit card number, my checking account number, cellphone number, address.”

However, the man did answer vaguely when asked how long Carrascosa was a bank customer. “He said he’d been there 10 years.”

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The man told him someone had linked Eduardo’s cellphone number to their own Zelle account, and was using it to transfer $3,500 out of his account. He had to change the number back.

The irony was, that was exactly what the imposters themselves were about to do.

Zelle works by registering either a phone number or email to receive money in an instant. Critics say that single factor, plus the speed of the transfers, and the fact they can’t be reversed, make it too easy for scammers to steal money with Zelle.

Which these imposters were about to do to Carrascosa.

“I was really suspicious and nervous. But at that point, I was already trapped,” because they had so much information about him, he said. “I was gonna do what they told me, you know.”

The man told Carrascosa to type his own name and cellphone number as a recipient in his own Zelle account, so he could then send that $3,500 back to himself. It seemed strange but also oddly safe.

“I should have hung up. I thought about hanging up,” Carrascosa recalled. “But I also thought, well, if I’m the recipient, what’s the worst that can happen?”

So he did it. First, he sent $2,500 ostensibly to himself. Immediately, the balance on his account plummeted.

“I got nervous and the guy said don’t worry it’ll come back in an hour,” he said.

Carrascosa says he felt sick. But “trapped.” He sent another $1,000. Then, the trap snapped.

“They hung up immediately,” he said.

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Two receipts seemed to show he sent himself $2,500, then $1,000. After all, each one said “You sent $2,500 to Eduardo Carrascosa” and “You sent $1,000 to Eduardo Carrascosa.”

In reality, the money went straight to the scammers, who had entered Eduardo’s name and cellphone number into their own Zelle account, registered in the scammer’s name.

A warning had popped up from Bank of America, flagging it as a possible scam, but at the urging of the imposters, he clicked to “send anyway.”

His $3,500 dollars was gone. He was shocked.

“I went into a panic attack. I was… I couldn’t breathe. It was terrible. Because I knew I had been scammed. I thought how am I ever going to sleep? I couldn’t even breathe,” he said.

Carrascosa says $3,500 is a huge chunk of his savings, needed for food and rent in expensive San Francisco.

He called Bank of America and initiated a claim for reimbursement, but didn’t get any promises.

“They were telling me it’s 50-50,” he said, indicating the chance of getting his money back. They didn’t get any information about it.

He went online, found the reports from our sister station ABC7 News’ 7 On Your Side about the widespread scam, and the fact banks have been inconsistent about how they treat victims.

“An article from ABC7 News… that was the most helpful thing on the internet,” Carrascosa said. “You had shed some light on these cases… that was the only hope I had.”

Zelle is owned by seven major banks, including Bank of America. Hundreds of other banks and credit unions offer Zelle as part of their online banking menu of services, incorporating it into the mobile and online banking apps.

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Many customers say they are surprised to find their banks and Zelle don’t offer any fraud protections. However, federal regulators have issued statements saying that victims who are tricked into sending money using Zelle may be entitled to refunds from their banks by law – if not by Zelle.

After that, many banks have offered refunds to Zelle scam victims, but not under all circumstances.

After several weeks, and after ABC7 News contacted Bank of America, Carrascosa got the verdict.

“I was convinced it was going to be denied, right?” he said. “And then, lo and behold, to my surprise, my claim was approved. The money had been refunded. I was ecstatic! I couldn’t believe it!”

Carrascosa was so grateful he offered to donate part of his refund to help other victims, or to charity.

“I just want to help you guys, you didn’t have to do this for me,” he said.

Just to note, imposters may have your personal information gleaned from data breaches and the so-called “dark web.” And they use it to persuade you they are legitimate, as they did in Carrascosa’s case.

Banks tell customers that Zelle offers none of the fraud protections you get from credit or debit cards, or an insured bank account.

However, as noted, federal regulators say Regulation E, under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, does protect those who are “fraudulently induced” into providing electronic access to their bank funds.

Bank of America says it’s ramping up warnings to customers to watch out for scams – and did flag Carrascosa’s transaction before he approved it anyway. As for refunds, it says only that it considers each case individually and follows federal law.

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