‘You trust the bank,’ but thieves stole Lemoyne couple’s $63k; how to guard against the ‘*72 scam’

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — The second call — from the actual fraud department — was what alerted Joe Farrell to the actual problem.

“This is Wells Fargo fraud department here,” Farrell — speaking Wednesday — recalled the agent saying. “Suspicious activity.”

He logged into his savings account. Most of the money in the account — more than $63,000 — was gone: $24,832 transferred via wire to an account at one online bank, $38,437 to a different account at a different online bank — all of it, in turn, gone from those accounts before anyone could do anything about the heist.

Wells Fargo told him there was nothing it could do: He or someone with his username and password (clearly the latter, he said) had logged in and made the transfers, and the money was gone. Case closed.

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That was Dec. 26. Christmas had been festive for Farrell, his wife Mary, and their granddaughter Evita Lopez, a high school senior who lives with them; the day after was anything but.

“We’re looking ahead to four years of college tuition,” Mary Farrell said. “And so this is not a timely thing, for us to lose savings… You trust the bank that it’s safe.”

Joe Farrell thought back to a call four days earlier from someone who said they were with the bank’s fraud department. Someone in Fort Lauderdale, the supposed agent said, was trying to get a debit card for Joe’s savings card.

Was it him? No; he had never even been to Fort Lauderdale. Not to worry, the caller said. They would take care of things. Joe should just hang up and dial *72 plus another phone number the caller provided.

He did that.

As Joe Farrell now knows, because the FBI explained this after he contacted them, *72 activates call forwarding.

What does that have to do with the stolen $63,000?

In addition to requiring his username and password, Wells Fargo would have sent an additional code to Farrell before allowing the transfers, explained Jonathan Weissman, a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s cybersecurity department. That’s called multi-factor authentication. The system would have given Farrell — or a person posing as him — the option to receive that message via a text message or an automated voice phone call.

*72 doesn’t forward text messages, but it does forward phone calls. The scammer could have chosen a phone call. The call with the code would have gone to the scammer.

The latest scam? Well, yes and no.

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“The ‘star 72 scam’ has been around since as early as 2004, 20 years ago,” Weissman said. “But it hasn’t really surfaced in terms of attacking multi-factor authentication until now.”

Weissman said “social engineering” scams like this one are really more about psychology than technology.

“So really what it does is, it causes our customers to be frantic, and that leads to poor decisions ultimately,” Dan Cusick, a Wells Fargo fraud and claims executive, said in a video provided by the bank, in which he also said attacks have become “much more aggressive” in just the past 18 months.

“I know my grandparents are probably in the smarter half of all the elders,” Lopez said. “We talk about different things, like the random texts that come, Amazon scams — and they’re pretty tough against it.”

But that vigilance wasn’t enough this time.

Weissman’s advice: Don’t fall for the *72 scams, of course, but more generally — because fraudsters are always finding new ways to steal — don’t do anything on your phone or computer because someone who called you told you to do it.

“The best thing you can do for any incoming call is be extremely suspicious and in most cases, hang up the phone, look up the actual posted number for that organization, and call them directly,” Weissman said.

A few hours after abc27 News contacted Wells Fargo Wednesday, Farrell said he heard from the bank again saying it had re-opened the investigation. By Thursday afternoon, the money was back in his account.

Farrell said he was grateful to abc27 News — and to the bank.

“It’s unfortunate that it had to go this far, but I do feel grateful that they’ve done the right thing,” he said.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to ABC27.