Just about everyone in the 802 area code was the target of an international scam during the last few days, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Starting slowly late last week and then escalating on Saturday and Sunday, scammers made calls and sent text messages throughout the Vermont calling area in an attempt to gather confidential bank information from Merchants Bank customers.
But recipients of the phony messages weren’t limited to just Merchants Bank customers, according Thomas Leavitt, the executive vice president of operations at Merchants Bank.
“The calls were pretty comprehensive in the 802 calling area,” said Leavitt, whose bank had received calls from people with phone service from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Tracfones and a few other wireless carriers.
How many people had fallen victim to the scam by Monday morning was unclear, but Leavitt said the number was in the “low dozens.”
Money from some of those accounts had already been withdrawn via automated transactions at a location outside the United States, Leavitt said. He said the bank responded by temporarily blocking any further transactions from the foreign country which he declined to name.
Leavitt also emphasized that the scammers hadn’t managed to hack into the bank’s account files.
“There was no penetration of our security,” he said.
The scam isn’t the first to target phones in Vermont’s 802 area code, but it is among the most widespread in terms of people reached, according to Leavitt and Jason Duquette-Hoffman, coordinator of the Attorney General’s office’s Consumer Assistance Program.
“We don’t know how many but it was a broad area that was affected,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Earlier this year, scammers ran a similar operation targeting the customers of two credit unions in the state, he said.
But those phony calls and text messages didn’t reach as many Vermonters. And because Merchants Bank, which operates 33 offices throughout the state, caters to a large percentage of the population, the potential number of victims from the latest scam was much higher, officials said.
“It appears they’re moving toward targeting consumers using the names of local banks,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “Consumers have a closer relationship with their local banks and they’re more likely to respond to these kinds of requests without considering that it might be a scam than they would to the same kind of message from a bigger bank.”
Email scams targeting customers of bigger banking institutions are far more commonplace than the type of area-code saturation that struck Vermont over the weekend.
While no directory exists publicly for cellphone numbers, Duquette-Hoffman said scammers get around that by identifying the local exchange that companies like Verizon, AT&T and other companies own in the area.
They then use automated dialers — the same kind of tools used by political surveyors — to run through every four-number combination to find the right telephone numbers.
“It’s likely that they have no idea who you are,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “It’s a scatter approach.”
In the phony texts and messages delivered to Vermonters, the scammers informed recipients that their Merchants Bank accounts had been compromised and they asked people to call them to “verify” their account information. Those who called the number were asked to provide their account numbers and user pins, Leavitt said.
Tracking the scammers is next to impossible, Duquette-Hoffman said. While caller identifications showed that the phony phone calls were made from the metro New York, Alabama and New Mexico areas, Duquette-Hoffman said those area codes were as fake as the fraudulent messages.
“Those aren’t real,” he said of the phone numbers. “There are ways to disguise your number. They can make it look like your neighbor is calling if they want to.”
Even if the Attorney General’s office was able to trace the calls, investigating criminal activity committed oversees is outside the office’s jurisdiction and beyond their means, he said.
“The only thing we can do is get the word out so people will know what’s going on and not fall victim,” he said.
For further information or to report damages from the fraud, Merchants Bank customers can call (800) 322-5222 or the company’s card support services at (800) 554-8969.
To report fruadulent calls to the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program, call 656-8755.
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