Sometimes consumers fall victim to scams because they've been careless. Or not skeptical enough. Or too trusting.
John Lohn and his wife, Dana Caragine, aren't any of those things.
And yet they lost nearly $9,000. Because the scammers keep growing more sophisticated.
The couple received a change of address/mail forwarding postcard from the postal service in late December, but they weren't moving out of their Gillette home.
The local post office told Lohn his postal carrier would be instructed not to forward any mail.
It was too late.
On Jan. 18, someone in the Miami area went on a three-hour spending spree with Lohn's debit card, Caragine said.
"He or she withdrew $4,000 from two ATMs, spent $4,900 at three supermarket locations, filled his or her car with gas and visited two restaurants," Caragine said. "We received no calls or alerts from the bank, Chase."
Charges totaled $8,968.
The couple noticed the charges the next day, and they filed a claim with Chase. On Jan. 24, the bank provisionally credited the full amount to the debit card pending an investigation.
They figured that would be it.
They were wrong.One of the letters the couple received, redacted, saying the provisional credits would be removed. John Lohn
On Feb. 10, Lohn received letters from Chase saying the claims were denied, and the provisional $8,968 credit would be removed on Feb. 21.
"We were told that this was final, could not be appealed and could only be challenged in small claims court," Caragine said.
They went to their local Chase branch, and that's when they learned the denial was because the purchases were made with a chip and PIN card.
The branch helped them learn about the scammer's actions.
On Jan. 3, about a week after the couple discovered the change of address notification in their mailbox, the scammer called Chase Bank to request a duplicate card.
"Chase issued new plastic with the same card number and mailed it to my home via USPS," Lohn said. "I did not receive this card, as it was forwarded by USPS."
Two days later, the fraudster called Chase and requested a new PIN by mail. This, too, was forwarded to the scammer's address.
Sometime between Jan. 5 and Jan. 18, the scammer called Chase to raise the debit card's ATM withdrawal limit from $400 to $3,000. The scammer called yet again to file a travel notification, saying he had an upcoming business trip to Florida and wanted to make sure the card would work.
Then came Jan. 18, the day of the nearly $9,000 in charges.
"The fraudsters performed the eight transactions, obviously without my knowledge or consent," Lohn said. "While they performed these transactions, I was teaching in my public school classroom in Scotch Plains."
The next day, Lohn said, they realized they'd been robbed.
ASKING FOR HELP
When they learned of Chase's dispute denial, the couple filed a police report and filed a complaint with the Postal Inspection Service.
Their local post office said it couldn't give them the address mail was forwarded to without a postal investigation.
They took to Twitter to reach out to Chase, which gave them a phone number to call, and the bank opened two new claims.
Then Caragine and Lohn reached out on Facebook to Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that processed some of the charges, hoping to find video surveillance of the bad guys.John Lohn sits with his paperwork from Chase. He said a scammer put in a fake change of address request and Lohn's Chase information went to the scammer. Frank Conlon/For NJ Advance Media
They got a call from a Publix investigator.
"She explained that she has seen this scam multiple times before; the purchases at Publix were all money orders from Western Union; there is data/CCTV evidence she can release to law enforcement; and she can reach out to contacts at Chase on our behalf," Lohn said.
The Publix investigator, Lohn said, added she's seen a surge in this exact scenario -- mail forwarding, duplicate cards, new PINs, and so on. The investigator even had a similar case the week before.
The investigator agreed to share what she knew with police.
"At this time, I have no idea if any of my mail is still being forwarded and if it is, where it is going," Lohn said.
The other problem was that soon, the provisional credit would be removed from the couple's checking account and they'd have an overdraft of nearly $9,000.
They transferred money from savings to cover the expected shortfall.
One Chase rep called it an "identity takeover," a term that Caragine said was spot on.
"I get choked up thinking, what about a family that couldn't find that much cash fast, if they get defrauded like this?" Caragine said. "It's scary to consider. People wouldn't be able to eat. It would be a horrible panic on top of what already feels like a tremendous violation."
They asked Bamboozled for help.
We spoke to Chase and the Postal Inspection Service, and they promised to look into it.
Within a few days, the couple heard from Chase.
"We agree, based on our completed investigation, that the transactions you reported were unauthorized or incorrect," Chase said in an email.
It said that $4,909 -- from the money orders purchased at Publix -- would be credited to their account.
Later that day, Chase said in another email that the disputed ATM charges and one restaurant charge were deemed unauthorized.
The only remaining disputes were a $20.21 charge at Shell Oil and $15.61 at Wendy's.
We guess that scamming is hungry work, and the perpetrators needed gasoline to get around.
"We're pleased to resolve it for the family," a Chase spokesman said on Friday, Feb. 17.
Chase spoke too soon.The credits promised to the couple's account didn't stand. John Lohn
On Feb. 21 -- the day the couple was initially told the disputed debits would be back -- nearly $9,000 was taken out of the account by Chase.
We asked Chase what was up. It said it would take a look.
When Caragine later spoke to Chase, it said it was human error.
The credits, including the outstanding charges from Wendy's and Shell, were put back in the account before the day's end, and the couple was made whole.
"We are relieved the financial aspect of this is over -- the postal component continues -- but we're not sure it would have ended in our favor without significant intervention," Caragine said. "We worry about others who get hit by this fraud, which is why we wanted to share this story.
Caragine asked if she could set an alert with Chase to learn if a duplicate card is ordered or if a new PIN is requested.
"Amazingly - there is not," she said.
We confirmed that with Chase, which allows many alerts, but not that kind.
Chase said whenever it receives a request for a change of address, it sends a letter via U. S. mail to both the new and the old address.
But if someone is watching your mailbox and snatching letters, that won't be much help.
The Postal Inspection Service, in the meantime, said it was on the case. Reps spoke to the couple and sounded optimistic.
"Through our strong working relationship with our partners in law enforcement we are confident we will bring those responsible for this crime to justice," a spokesman said.
Penalties are hefty.
Those who steal mail or file a false change of address order face fines or up to five years in prison, or both. Same goes for those who apply for a credit card in someone else's name, the spokesman said, "unless a financial institution is affected, in which case the fine may be raised to $1 million and imprisonment may be imposed for up to 30 years, or both."
Bamboozled will stay on the case and let you know what happens.Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com's weekly e-newsletter.
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