Mel Cooke, Sunday Gleaner Writer
Debbiewas driving up Mount Rosser, St Catherine, two years ago when her son called from the United States. The student had gone to an automated teller machine (ATM) to withdraw money from an account that should have had US$4,000 and found US$3.66.
"It looks like they never had anything to buy with that," Debbie said, with a wry chuckle.
It was not a laughing matter then, as she says, "It sent me into shock! I cried. At the time I did not know it was likely I would have got the money from the bank." She theorises that it led to her developing high blood pressure, as she did not have any signs before.
However, the foreign currency turned out to be the lesser of her scam woes. When Debbie called her personal banker, while still weeping on Mount Rosser, she found out that $1 million in Jamaican currency was also taken. The banker could tell her that as they spoke someone was withdrawing $15,000 at an ATM in Montego Bay.
Her son had access to the account because she did not wish to send him money via remittance service as he needed it. So she was left in a lurch, with the then student needing cash immediately. "They wiped me out clean. That was all the cash I had," she said. "I had to be looking for school fee. I had to find money to send by Western Union."
She was also worried about being implicated in the theft. Debbie said she wondered, "How am I going to tell them (the bank) I did not give someone my PIN? The first thing the bank asks is who you gave your card number."
Bank covering up
However, it turned out that "the bank was very accommodating", although she says "When I went to the Fraud Squad to report it, the bank did not seem they wanted anyone to know this is happening." Debbie was asked to make a report to the bank, as was her son, even though all the fraudulent trans-actions were done in Jamaica, mainly along Gloucester Avenue in Montego Bay, at a hardware store, and even one in Savanna-la-Mar.
The money was taken out over four days, with a lot of transactions done at point-of-sale machines. "They were apparently building a house and bought a lot of goods," Debbie said, a jacuzzi among the items on 'her' bill.
The stolen money was reimbursed by the bank and, although Debbie did not want a debit card, the bank insisted that she needed one to do business with them.
About eight months later, Debbie's account was raided again. Now, much more aware about her account's security, Debbie went into the branch and found out that $700,000 had gone. This time, she was not cleaned out, as there was $500,000 left. And the thieves did not get to the US currency this time around.
And the criminal was caught red-handed. "They caught the guy who did the last one," Debbie said. She said she got a private investigator who was actually in an electronics store beside the thief when the fraudulent transaction was being made.
Speculating on how the account was compromised a second time, Debbie says, "It looks like my son used the machine when he came to Jamaica. The bank thinks it happened on Gloucester Avenue. There are a number of ATMs the bank thinks were targeted."
Again the money was returned and Debbie says she no longer has a debit card although her son, who is still in the US, uses one for the account, in which she now keeps only a limited amount of cash. And while she is not angry with the bank, Debbie's ire is directed at those who accepted the cards for goods.
"It is the merchants who accept the money and they can identify where they got the money, but they are not willing to go to court," Debbie said. "The merchants are the last people to help you. They also talk about having cameras in the stores but when the time comes their cameras are never working.
"Both times there was one specific merchant whose business came up very often. The police were watching that merchant, but nothing came of it."
Debbie is also concerned for those who were not as fortunate as she was.
"I was bitter then. It is almost two years now, so that bitterness has left me. But I knew of persons who have had the same challenges, who it took much longer to get back their money. And it took a lot to convince the bank they were not in on it."
In her cases, the money was returned in two to three weeks.
"It is a bit much for someone to put their money in safekeeping and it just disappears. That's where the bitterness comes - me having to prove I am not the guilty one," Debbie said.
And she is sticking to her guns on electronic transactions. "I have since discontinued using debit cards. If you use debit cards, you are setting up yourself to be scammed. Once you have a debit card you are open to be scammed."
Name changed to protect identity.