Bank checks used to be free; you could help yourself to a pack of them at almost any bank. Each pack of checks was coded to a particular bank, but the idea of personalized checks was still a ways off.
We simply numbered them, filled in our name and were off. So informal were conditions back then that once while on vacation we called our bank, then called Citizens State Bank, in Springer, told whoever answered that we were about to make a big purchase and we’d appreciate it if they’d put a little extra in our account. “Sure, be glad to” was the response.
Life in today’s technocracy is different. People who’ve had a Wells Fargo account (formerly Bank of New Mexico and Norwest) still gristle when they’re asked to show some I.D. before getting cash. It’s not a question of the customer suddenly turning dishonest; rather it’s a matter of the teller being new and therefore not knowing everyone by sight.
Regrettably, technology, which has made it easier to pay our bills online, to check our balance without the intervention of a human, to withdraw cash while thousands of miles away from the home bank, has also made scamming easier.
Last week in Work of Art, we posed the scenario of a trusting, yet nervous elderly person on the verge of withdrawing her life savings because a stranger in the parking lot told her he could make her rich if she’d chip in a few thousand dollars.
The scam, which has happened here in Las Vegas, takes a variety of forms. An old-timer accosted in a parking lot hears that the stranger has just won the lottery, but because he’s not a legal resident, he needs help cashing it in. And to be sure, he will make it worth the oldtimer’s while. Conveniently, an accomplice, pretending to be a passerby, overhears the conversation and stops long enough to verify the legitimacy of the lottery ticket. “To save all of us trouble,” the stranger may offer to simply “sell” the oldtimer the lottery ticket, which he says is worth $50,000. Hmm, not a bad profit for short work.
Although some people have in fact lost up to $10,000 on this kind of scam, it’s a rare occurrence, given the vigilance of personnel at all four of Las Vegas financial institutions.
Yvette Williams, an assistant vice president and internal auditor at First National Bank, along with co-workers Charlotte Gonzales and Louella Dimas, conducted a short course this week to explain all the work that goes into trying to detect a scam.
Their counterparts, Ron Williams at Wells Fargo, and Christine Ludi of State Employees Credit Union and Sam Abeyta of the Bank of Las Vegas, all agree it’s regrettable when a trusting soul depletes his or her bank account on the promise of instant wealth.
One safeguard, Yvette Williams pointed out, is that usually people who enter the bank with dollar signs rolling in their eyes feel the need to share the joy. “When we hear someone say, ‘I’ve just won the lottery,’ that sends up a red flag,” said Williams.
Christine Ludi said that unlike regular banks, not everybody can join the credit union. The relatively small membership at SECU means that most of the tells know their members by sight and can exercise much more judgment when confronted with an account holder bent on becoming wealthy.
Sam Abeyta, who said in his experience, successful scams are rare in Las Vegas, said that whenever a customer attempts to draw out a large sum, the teller alerts him. He said the 24 tellers who work for the main bank and its branches, are trained to try to learn more of the customer’s motivations in drawing out cash. “For example, if the customer says he’s drawing out the money to buy a car, we ask him why a check wouldn’t be better,” said Abeyta.
Williams, Gonzales and Dimas say that regrettably some people proceed with their withdrawals in spite of obvious red flags observed by bank personnel. Williams said that “Whenever the news of instant wealth seems too good to be true, it usually is.” Gonzales said that some people are relieved when they realize the bank’s efforts to protect them and their money, “but some people demand the money anyway and get scammed,” she said. Dimas said it’s rewarding to her personally when a customer thanks her for advising him against taking large sums out.
Williams said the incidences of customers attempting to withdraw sums of up to $10,000 are rare. Transactions of that size require the filing of extra paperwork. “What happens more often,” Williams said, “is that someone acquires or produces a counterfeit check and approaches someone with, ‘I’ve got this check, but I don’t have an account here. If you cash it for me, I’ll give you 500 bucks.'” Williams said that people who try to cash a check they know is bogus become accomplices in crime.
Ludi, the branch manager at SECU, said her staff attempts to dissuade members from drawing out large cash amounts. “If the amount is large, we try to issue a check made payable to another bank–that way we can put a stop payment on it if necessary.”
How many of you have received an email (or even snail mail) from someone in a foreign country, usually Nigeria, explaining that the sender has inherited millions of dollars but can’t cash it there. He needs to park his money for a short while in your bank account, and he therefore needs your account number and bank routing number. After that, he promises, he will make you wealthy.
Work of Art would like to hear from you. If you have had experiences such as those mentioned here please contact us.