THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Passed bucks: Scam leaves teen deep in the hole

Danielle Miller is a senior at Albemarle High School. With graduation imminent, she's weighing whether to enter PVCC in the fall– or possibly join the Navy.

She's also the recent victim of a variation of the infamous "Nigerian 419 scams" on the Internet, one that's costing her $3,600.

Miller's no dummy. She's aware that cyberspace is jammed with scams. 

"I don't know why I trusted it," she says of this one. "I had never seen one like it."

Unlike the sometimes hilarious syntax and grammar typical of many of these scams, Danielle says this was well written. It said "Job Offer" in the subject line (perhaps a particularly enticing prospect for a soon-to-be graduate?). The sender explained that he runs a website and receives checks from the U.S. that he can't cash in his own country. He was looking for someone in the U.S. to cash the checks for him, for a fee of 10 percent.

The website checked out, so Danielle sent her name, address, and phone number in response to the email.

She soon received a check in the mail for $4,000, but she didn't deposit it right away. After she got a number of urgent phone calls from her new "employer," however, on April 10 she deposited the check in her Bank of America account using an ATM. 

Danielle went to the bank the next morning and was able to withdraw $3,600 in cash, which she mailed to her "employer."

But on April 14, when Danielle was blocked from using her debit card, she discovered her account was some $3,600 in the red. She called the bank and was told there was a hold put on the check, but not to worry– it would be lifted as soon as the check cleared.

Based on these assurances and her ability to get $3,600 cash from her account, Danielle made arrangements for a second check, which she deposited about a week later via a teller. 

The next day, she got a call from BofA to tell her the second check was a forgery.

"I was freaking out," Danielle says, as the truth dawned on her.

Danielle reported the matter to Albemarle County police, but she says there was nothing they could do. Then she had a "heart to heart" with her mother, Sally, explaining her predicament. 

Together, they went to BofA's Rio Road branch, where Danielle banks, to speak with the manager, Derrick Hester. They were passed up the corporate ladder, but the bottom line did not change: Danielle was responsible for the $3,600.

Like many victims of fraud, Danielle is embarrassed. But she also feels Bank of America failed to protect her by disbursing so much cash on a worthless piece of paper.

BofA couldn't discuss Danielle's case because of privacy concerns, and security concerns prevent bank officials from describing their fraud detection procedures.

But BofA spokeswoman Nicole Nastacie assured me that the bank is sympathetic to Danielle's situation. "It's very unfortunate this has happened," she said, and she added that after BofA became aware I was involved, officials offered Danielle an installment plan to repay the debt.

Nastacie added that BofA provides an abundance of information warning customers about scams. But at the end of the day, responsibility lies with the customer.

That's fair, but BofA's response leaves too many basic questions unanswered, especially an explanation of why BofA failed to detect the first check was fraudulent sooner and let Danielle know. After all, it required less than 24 hours to determine the second check was phony.

BofA attributes the difference to the fact that Danielle deposited the first check in an ATM, where deposits are processed according to a procedure that delays the detection of fraud.

But that explanation offers Danielle no consolation, and it also doesn't answer a second question: why BofA made the $4,000 check available to Danielle immediately, but then quickly put a hold on it– if they had no reason to suspect it was fake.

Nastacie encouraged me to call the Virginia Bankers Association for more information. 

Courtney Fleming, VBA's  Communications and Marketing Director, told me, however, to direct my questions to BofA. Uh, okay....

Bank of America's sympathy and installment plan aside, given a banking system that operates largely out of public view, stopping these scams will require more than customer education.

For now, however, I applaud Danielle, a courageous high school senior willing to tell her story when so many others suffer in silent embarrassment.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.


[Correction: The original printed version of this story incorrectly named the mother. Her name is correct in this online archived edition.]