When Jessica DeLaCerda, a teller with the $148 million Auto Body Credit Union, Lansing, Mich., noticed one of the credit union's older members withdrawing $3000 from her accounts, she was curious.
"It's a very ticklish sort of question," DeLaCerda admitted. "You can't just come out and say, 'That's a lot of money. What are you going to do with it?'" she said. "So I try to say something, 'Wow, doing some holiday shopping, huh?' or 'Guess it's getting close to tax time again.' And if the person wants to respond, they can. If they don't, they are being private about the money."
But in this case, the member responded that she was taking the money out to get a better return on her funds.
"Well, that really made me suspicious," DeLaCerda said. "Because we all know what interests rates on legit deposits and investments have been lately, and this member was taking out such a large percentage of her funds,"
It turned out that DeLaCerda's concerns were well founded. The member responded to the familiar teller by explaining she had won a prize of $2.5 million and that all she had to do was send the prize administrators $3,000 to facilitate the prize delivery.
"As soon as I heard that, I advised her it was likely a scam and moved to get my branch manager and customer service involved," she explained. "I didn't want to see one of our members taken in this way."
According to data provided by the FBI, this kind of fraud had actually been declining since 2005. The bureau categorizes this sort of fraud as "mass marketing fraud" and reported that it had investigated 161 cases in national mass marketing fraud in 2005 but only 89 cases in 2009.
However, the recession has spurred a spike in this kind of fraud, the bureau acknowledged, though there were not yet any data to specify how much of an increase there has been.
DeLaCerda attributed her ability to help the CU's member avoid being taken in to how well Auto Body knows most of its members and the levels of trust the members put in the CU. For example, large withdrawals at holiday time are not unusual, she noted, but $3,000 at one time was a bit unusual because it nearly cleaned out the account.
This trust is crucial, she explained, because the member might already be very emotionally invested in the scam by the time they arrive at the credit union.
"She was definitely focused on the prize," DeLaCerda said. "She didn't want to hear that it was likely a scam. Even when my manager and customer service got involved, they still felt they needed to bring in the local police to talk to her because she still wanted to send the money."
It was really only after the police spoke with her that she believed it was a scam and felt grateful for the CU's help in keeping her money, DeLaCerda explained. In her mind, she had already spent the money.