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WaMu Gave Grandma's Money to Crooks

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New York Times Reporting on ICT

The article appeared on May 21, 2007.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006
the recording
I've had to revise my position. I called the company that serves as customer relations for the merchant that scammed my grandmother today. I listened several times to the recording which they had on file and claimed was evidence of my grandmother's informed consent to withdraw funds from her account. With their consent, I made a copy using my computer microphone.

The first time I heard it, I was convinced that it was spliced together from several conversations by the merchant so that it could fraudulently represent her authorization. This was in large part because of what my grandmother had told me had happened. But I forced myself to be fair and check with my grandmother to determine whether this was in fact a manipulated recording or the actual conversation that took place.

I played it for my grandmother over the phone this afternoon. She wasn't positive it wasn't edited, but said that she remembers being talking to a couple different people over the course a several calls. The trick of the scam hinged upon two factors:

1. The operator who originally called her transferred her to "the verification officer on duty," Harrison Adams. Harrison Adams had a very assertive demeanor and rapidly asked my grandmother to verify a few pieces of information, including her name, address, bank, checking account number, and routing number. The second operator is the small print guy who actually extracts the words from her that may (I'd like to emphasize the legally unsettled status of this conclusion) transform this scam from outright criminal fraud into a legal but highly unscrupulous, totally scumbag fleecing.

2. Specifically, the con hinges on the way in which Harrison Adams phrases his request to withdraw funds from her account. The first operator told her that the funds would be deposited into her account. Harrison Adams first states:

"...All right, do you one-time registration [sic] for the ITP ID Protection Package."

It starts as a question, but he does not leave room for her response. This must be deliberate. I don't doubt she wouldn't have said yes, had he asked her to affirm this, for, as she explains, more than the money promised her, she simply wished to be done with all the calls. (Why, if this is what she really wanted, she just didn't say, "No thanks, goodbye," is a question I leave for the psychologists and anthropologists out there to answer.)

Then her purported authorization. The agent says:

"Now Virgina [name altered to protect identity], $398 that you requested to be drafted from the checking account the 20th day of December, 2005, which is today. Is this correct?"

The fraud hinges on the word 'from'. Before this, the agent had emphasized the funds would be deposited into her account. Now they say they will be drawn from -- the preposition goes by fast, garbled, and unnoticed.

With my grandmother's consent, I will include a link to this recording here. I will dub over any personal information mentioned to protect her privacy.

Even if this were the actual transcript of their conversation, does this constitute a legal authorization? The agent and his company, ITP, (may they all rot with syphillus) obviously believed so. They drew up a check in my grandmother's name and cashed it with their bank.

Washington Mutual believed it was a legitimate authorization, too. They processed the check and transferred the funds from her account to the scam artists' account -- despite the fact that it was not a check from her checkbook, did not have her signature, did not look like any other check that had ever been presented against her account, and was paid to an out-of-state company.

The fact is, at least according to two representative from Washington Mutual I've spoken with, this check would have been processed and the funds withdrawn even if my grandmother had never said anything over the phone that sounded like an authorization. And there is no ceiling on the amount in which such a check could be written. The only limit to the amount which a dishonest merchant could take out of your account by printing a check with your information on it is the funds available in your account.

In a case where the unscrupulous merchant simply printed up a check without getting a voice recording of their victim, the difference would be that, when my grandmother initiated a fraud claim (as she did), Washington Mutual might actually stop payment or, if it were too late for that, call back the funds. It would do nothing to prevent the same dishonest company from doing the same thing tomorrow. Actually I learned yesterday that my grandmother had been hit a second time for $200 on this same account. A different company in name, but same type of check -- and it was presented after she had contacted Washington Mutual to initiate the fraud claim.

With my grandmother's consent, I'll also post a copy of the check -- marked to protect her identity -- here. Why such a check would ever be accepted is one of the questions Washington Mutual has not answered for me yet? I can see no necessary use for such an instrument except for fraud.

I'll post more on my grandmother and my interactions with Washington Mutual at the next opportunity.

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The same thing happened to my mother through Bremer Bank.
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