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Scammers targeted licensed counselors, therapists using Wells Fargo ATM 'access code' system

Bank halts card-free 'access code' ATM use
Wells Fargo
Posted at 10:29 AM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 12:29:06-04

DENVER -- A Contact Denver7 warning about scammers targeting professional counselors and therapists in Colorado, and across the country.

Victims say they are being threatened with felonies on their records for allegedly failing to show up to testify in court.

One metro Denver counselor said he is speaking out, both to warn others about the scam, and to shine light on a major bank's role that made it easier for scammers to get away with thousands of dollars.

Roderic Burks said he was targeted on March 31, when a caller left the following message on his voicemail: "This is Sgt. Robert Hitchcox with the Denver Sheriff's Department. I'm calling in regards to some legal matters."

Burks said that message got his attention right away.

"It said I needed to call the sergeant on his direct line," he told Denver7.

Burks said he looked up the phone number associated with the message and confirmed that it was a working Denver Sheriff's Department number.

Little did he know the number had been "spoofed" and that the sergeant was an impostor.

"He got on the phone and stated there was a warrant, an active warrant for contempt and failure to appear," Burks said. "He said it has something to do with being a professional witness for one of your patients."

When Burks told the caller he had no recollection that he was supposed to testify in a trial, the caller said two deputies had gone to his office and presented a summons that Burks had signed.

Burks said he told the sergeant, "I never signed a summons."

"He told me, I'd have to go down to the Sheriff's Office and do a signature review," Burks said, to determine whether the signature matched that on the summons.

By then, Burks was very concerned that he had missed a court hearing.

"It's an infraction on a (professional) license, and you are going to have a very difficult time, if not impossible, getting it renewed with a felony charge," he said.

Burks added that as a profession, counselors are very cooperative.

"We're certainly going to be attentive, especially if we're supposed to be providing testimony on behalf of one of the minors we're (counseling,) or an adult, for their own safety," he said.

Burks said the caller sounded very experienced.

"While I was talking, he would use '10-4,' and there was a sound track they were literally playing in the background, that sounded like a (police radio.)"

Burks said he was told that in order to avoid arrest, he'd have to post bail, which would be refunded at the end of his case.

"He said, if I don't comply, I can turn myself into the department, but there would be no reduction of bail, it is double, and you will be booked and it will go on your record," Burks said.

He said the sergeant told him there was a gag order, so not to talk to anyone.

Burks said he asked for a case number and was given one by the sergeant.

"He said Wells Fargo had a partnership with the Denver Sheriff's Office, and that I could make my payment through the Wells Fargo system using an access code feature," Burks said.

"I was cooperative, as I think a civilian or therapist really needs to be," Burks said. "We're here for our patients. We're here to take care of them, and if we need to be involved for community health, then we're going to do that."

Burks said the sergeant told him to go to an ATM at Wells Fargo.

"He said I would be given an access code that is populated by the Treasury Department through the Denver Sheriff's Department. The Access Code would link to the records, and the bail I was asked to pay would be settled, and my warrant would be unfrozen, and I could proceed," he said.

So Burks went to his bank and withdrew $5,000 which he then deposited in two separate transactions at a nearby Wells Fargo ATM in what he thought was the Sheriff Departments account, using an access code supplied by the "sergeant."

He said he remained on the line with the "sergeant" all the time, and was later told that because he was facing a felony, additional bail would be required.

So Burks went back to his bank and withdrew another six grand and deposited it in the same Wells Fargo ATM.

Burks said he asked what the charge was for.

"He said, 'it has something to do with being a professional witness for one of your patients. It looks like it's a juvenile sexual assault charge.' Of course I'm worked up at that point. I want to make sure that I'm cooperating."

Burks said he was told they would have a discovery package at headquarters so he can prepare for the case, and that he would then be escorted to the signature review area.

"I drove down to the Sheriff's Office," he said, "and went up to the officer behind the window."

"I said I'm here to see Sgt. Hitchcox for signature review, for a subpoena on a warrant," Burks told Denver7. "The officer looked me and asked me again, can you tell me the name of the sheriff and added, I really hate to tell you this, but you've been scammed."

"I just lost my breath," Burks said. "The (deputy) gave me an 800 number."

He said he thought the number would be to an investigative unit that could help him recover his money.

Instead, he said, the number went to a Wells Fargo.

"I never mentioned Wells Fargo to the deputy," Burks said, adding that when he called the number, a representative at Wells Fargo told him to call his bank.

"Her closing statement was, 'thank you for being the best part of Wells Fargo,' which was very offensive, and I think cruel," he said.

Burks said his bank told him there was no fraudulent activity on the withdrawal he made from his account, so he went back to Wells Fargo and asked to talk to the bank manager.

He said the manager told him she called the fraud department and was filing a complaint.

"She's asking me if I got a receipt. I said it's not an option when you use an access code," Burks said. "I was baffled that the bank manager is asking me if I got a receipt. She said they don't manage their own ATMs, so they can't intervene immediately."

"I'm very angry," Burks said. "Wells Fargo has allowed for the weaponizing of their ATM Unit. This would have never happened to me if it wasn't for that specific use of the ATM."

Burks said he went online and found he wasn't the only victim. He learned that a therapist started a petition drive a year ago, to get Psychology Today — where scammers are apparently getting their victims' profiles — to notify members.

The Scripps-owned station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported on a variation of the scam, in 2019, where therapists and counselors were told to use reloadable cards to post their bail.

The NBC station in Washington, DC, reported last month that scammers were using the Wells Fargo 'access code' feature to steal money from elderly residents who had been told their grandchildren were in danger.

Burks says Wells Fargo didn't act quickly enough to protect consumers. He wants his money refunded and has filed a report about the scam with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Wells Fargo said it has taken steps to protect consumers, and issued this statement:

We are regularly making improvements to enhance the convenience and security of the products and services we offer. As part of our continued focus on simplifying and enhancing payment options for our customers, effective yesterday, April 1, the card-free ATM access code feature is no longer available with Wells Fargo Mobile® app or the Contact Center and, therefore, is no longer available to access client accounts at Wells Fargo ATMs.

Fraud and threats continue to change and evolve, and we remain aware and vigilant. Wells Fargo is regularly making improvements to enhance the convenience and security of the products and services we offer. As part of our review, we consider a number of factors including available technology, speed, convenience, security and simplifying our offerings. It is important to us that our customers have a positive and convenient experience when banking with us.