Thank God for USAA: How I Recently Fell Victim to a Sophisticated Scam Artist, and What I Learned in the Aftermath

Last Monday, while in the throes of getting my household ready for the day, I received 2 texts from “USAA Fraud Department” alerting me that 2 large transactions were attempted on my debit card. Before I even had time to finish reading the text, the phone began ringing. It was an 800 number from North Carolina. I didn’t answer. That number called 3 more times after that, in rapid fire. On the last call, I answered. While I still figured it was spam, I began wondering if USAA was in fact trying to reach me.

Sure enough, the gentleman on the other end said “Am I speaking with Mrs. Emily McElrath?”  “Yes,” I responded. He went on to say that he was from the USAA Fraud Department and they had noticed unusual transactions on my account. He told me not to worry, that they had shut down access to the account, but that he was calling me to verify that I did not in fact make those charges. Simple enough, but I still had a weird feeling in my gut.

We have banked with USAA for over 15 years, but they have never called us without some form of prompting from us. And usually, they have us call them if there is a problem. So I asked the guy “Why are you calling me? You all usually have me call you if there is a problem.”  To which he seamlessly responded “Oh yes ma’am, you’re correct. However, there were 2 transactions that went through and 3 more attempted transactions. We wanted to call you to get everything rectified as quickly as possible.”

I still felt uneasy about it but as I mentioned, it was Monday morning and a hectic one at that. I had my daughter asking me where her uniform was, my son refusing to get dressed because he was tired, and me trying to get lunches packed all while speaking to this gentleman. All this to say, I was more frazzled than normal. The gentleman went on to “verify” that he was in fact a USAA employee by providing me with personal info…..and this is where he finally got me. He had my social security number, he had my phone security PIN, and he had personal info about my husband who has his own account, but we share access to each account. He had me convinced, despite me having a continued nagging feeling in my gut.

So with mild trepidation, I went through the process of “resetting” everything so that the person who “stole my debit card” couldn’t have access. Now, before you think to yourself “Well I never would have fallen for that,” know that he was sending me verification codes from USAA just like they do when it’s legit. (The same number the real USAA always texts from.) Truly, I am always conscious of this type of thing. I don’t answer numbers I don’t know, I don’t click on links in emails, I change my passwords and PIN often. But this guy had ALL the right answers.

Needless to say, a few hours later while attempting to pump gas, I discovered I had been shut out of everything, all my cards had been canceled, and our savings appeared to have been drained when my husband checked our online account. And that is when I broke down. I sobbed like I have never sobbed. There is no worse feeling than to think your entire life savings has been wiped clean by a scammer and you’re the idiot who fell for it.  I honestly have never felt so violated. THANK GOD USAA is as savvy with issues like this as they are.

They realized what was happening as soon as all the account info was changed and neither my husband nor I called in response to their emails about the potential security threat. So they froze EVERYTHING. In the 5-10 minutes between the scammers changing everything and USAA shutting our accounts down, the scammer had transferred our entire savings into my checking account and was trying to withdraw the funds. Thanks to USAA (again), because they have a daily limit on the amount you can withdraw. So, the attempt to withdraw the money itself was its own red flag.

After several days worth of phone calls to USAA, they were able to rectify everything and refund the couple of fraudulent charges to the account. The best part…our entire life savings is still there….every penny. I am so grateful to God and USAA as I recognize this could have ended very differently. And while I still feel incredibly foolish, I want to share the info USAA gave with me to prevent this from happening again.

USAA’s recommendations:

  1. They said they will NEVER call us. They will always send a text AND email to alert us to the potential fraud, requesting we call them.

  2. In addition to a phone PIN, they will also ask for a phone password. (Which I had forgotten about because I have to call them so infrequently).

  3. They will never ask for the PIN to our debit card or any password information. This is true even in the event that they are trying to help us reset that information.

  4. Scam artists are getting sophisticated. They are able to attain certain personal information that may make them seem legit. If you are ever unsure when someone calls you, hang up and call the number to your bank directly.

  5. If something like this happens to you, you can go to IDTHEFT.GOV to report it. This will give you access to 1 year of free credit monitoring, they will alert the credit companies to the fraud, and they will give you a certificate to use as proof of the fraud should someone open a loan or account under your information.

  6. They also told me to use my credit card as much as possible and to try not to use my debit card. They said credit cards are safer because they are not linked directly to your account, and credit card companies have better resources to go after these scammers if you become the victim of fraud.

  7. Lastly, trust your gut! If something ever seems suspicious, it likely is!


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