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Two Minnesota women were tricked by the same scam on Zelle, here's how you can protect yourself

Digital payment apps like Zelle are convenient options for sending money, but do they come with a cost?

MINNEAPOLIS — Every person has a passion, and for Addie Elling, it's painting.

“I work 40 hours a week and then I come home, and I paint,” Elling says.

It’s a passion that also helps her pay the bills.

“One of my most recent paintings I received a $1,000 commission, which has been one of my higher commissions,” Elling says.

But before she could spend that money, it was stolen.

"It was gone in an instant,” Elling explains.

It all started with a text message from someone who claimed to be a representative from Elling’s bank, Wells Fargo.

"It said ‘Did you authorize a purchase through Zelle for $3,500.’ And then it said type ‘Y’ for Yes or ‘N’ for No," Elling says. She typed ‘N’ and immediately got a phone call.

The person on the other end sounded professional and said all the right things, telling Elling that her account had been hacked and she needed to send herself three payments through Zelle to get her money back.

"Essentially they started the whole thing by trying to help me out of being scammed, but really they were scamming me,” Elling explains.

Elling said $1,800 was stolen from her account. And she isn't alone.

Lisa Gregori says the same thing happened to her when scammers stole $3,500. She also received a text message from someone who claimed to work for Wells Fargo.

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“It said ‘Did you authorize a $3,500 dollar payment? ‘Yes, or no,’ and so I texted 'No,'” Gregori explains.

“So, I called Wells Fargo, and while the line is ringing, I got a caller ID coming in and it said it was from Wells Fargo, and so I hung up and answered the call.”

Gregori says the person on the other line claimed to work for Wells Fargo and even provided an employee ID number, which Gregori later verified with Wells Fargo was actually a fake number.

She says the caller then explained how they were going to reverse the fraudulent transfer by having Gregori send two transactions to herself, totaling $3,500.

“They said ‘I’m going to text you a number and you’re going to read the number to me.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and so I did, and then he said ‘Okay, now I need you to Zelle yourself a thousand dollars,”’ Gregori explains.

The whole situation didn't quite feel right, but with everything happening so fast, and the scammer saying and doing all the right things, she decided to listen to the scammers.

"I didn’t feel right about it and, so I called the bank, and I went online immediately and saw that my money was gone,” Gregori says.

KARE 11 reached out to Wells Fargo to see if the company would be willing to reimburse these two women.

The company sent KARE 11 this statement:

“We are unable to discuss information regarding specific customers or our investigative process on claims that are filed, due to customer privacy and confidentiality."

However, the company later stated that they would look into these cases.

"For these cases, we will review to determine if there are other factors that would warrant a reimbursement. Each situation is unique, and while we are not able to share specifics, our review may determine reimbursement is appropriate based on the situation or information provided.”

A few days after KARE-11 reached out to Wells Fargo, both Gregori and Elling contacted KARE 11 to say Wells Fargo had decided to reimburse them for the money they lost.

Gregori says a representative from Wells Fargo contacted her on Friday, March 18 and the money was officially transferred to her account a few days later. Elling says she also received a deposit from Wells Fargo around that same time.

What happened to Elling and Gregori is happening to countless people across the country.

Wells Fargo says the company is aware of these scams, and they are working to educate customers. The company says there is now a warning message that appears on the Wells Fargo app every time a customer tries to use Zelle.

Zelle was started in 2017 through a joint partnership with several banks, including Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Bank of America, and others. According to Zelle, more than $490 billion was transferred through the app in 2021.

Digital payments like Zelle have quickly become a popular option for consumers to transfer money to friends, family and companies with little to no fees, but does this convenience come with a cost?

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Bryce Austin is a cybersecurity expert with TCE Strategy. He says the laws are gray when it comes to digital payment apps.

"Right now, the laws do not make it the bank's problem that this happened to you,” Austin explains. 

"The worst that they can have is a disgruntled customer, often times that's not enough incentive to get them to act."

Austin says scammers often pose as banking employees or company representatives to trick people.

The scammers often make claims that a person’s account has been hacked, or that there have been fraudulent charges on their account. 

"These bad guys want to get their victims into a fight or flight mode. They want to get them very scared or very excited,” Austin says.

And Austin says it’s now easier than ever to make quick decisions you might regret, because with digital payment apps you can transfer money in an instant.

“Some bank transfers take a day or two to go through. With these apps the money is transferred in seconds,” Austin says.

"It is absolutely more convenient for scammers to rip you off in our internet age."

So, if you use digital payment apps, Austin offers these tips to keep you safe:

  • Don't trust caller ID, text messages, or phone calls that say they're coming from a specific company.
  • Always reach out to the company directly to verify it's truly them.
  • Never transfer money to someone you don't know.
  • And if a payment app is connected to your bank account, don't leave thousands of dollars in that account because it's more money for the scammers to steal.

Wells Fargo also offers the following tips to keep your money safe:

  • Wells Fargo will not contact a customer and ask them to send money to themselves or anyone else to prevent or stop fraud on their account.
  • Many scams use a variety of tricks to gain your trust and steal your money, but they often start with a simple call, email, or message impersonating a person or company you know to trick you into giving them your money.
  • Scammers can spoof their caller ID number and use bits of your personal information to convince you to reveal your access code and steal your money.
  • Never share your temporary access codes (for example, a one-time passcode) or PIN with anyone who calls you unexpectedly. Your bank or the government will never ask you for this information.
  • Avoid sending money or giving your account information to anyone you don’t know or a company you can’t verify as legitimate.

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