Scammers try to snare money from victims

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

Don't respond with account information

PERRY COUNTY - "Your card has been suspended," said the robotic female voice captured July 25 by an answering machine. "To reactivate your card, please call the security department at (515) 414-3121." The same warning was being sent as text messages to cell phones. Anyone tempted to follow the instructions was being led into a trap intended to empty their bank account.

The News received word of the scam that day and included a warning in last Monday's edition.

Customers of German American, First State, Citizens State and Stone City banks, all part of the German American Bank Corp., were targeted in the scam.

The Web site, www.whitepages.com notes the number is "unpublished or unavailable" but provides a map indicating it's located at the intersection of Mulberry and First streets in Ogden, Iowa.

Calls also appeared to originate in San Fernando, Calif., according to a report from the Indiana State Police Jasper Post, but Trooper Bill Flick said they actually come from outside the United States.

"People think locally," he said, "but they come from India and Canada." Recipients of such calls are often shocked that such calls are made to their home or cell phones, he added.

The Jasper Post itself received the scam calls on several of its own phone lines with both Iowa and California call-back numbers and matching voices.

The FBI and Secret Service are aware of the calls, which are being made to multiple states, Flick said.

A statement posted July 25 at www.germanamericanbancorp.com said the calls were being made randomly to residents of local counties, and stressed that no bank information had been compromised.

"Recipients of these fraudulent phone calls should be warned not to share any personal or confidential information about their accounts," bank officials said in the posting. "German American Bancorp does not handle requests for account information in this manner, so everyone who receives such a call should hang up immediately."

They urged customers to contact their bank and local authorities only if they responded to the automated calls and provided account information.

The calls are a variation on a scam technique known as "phishing," in which e-mail messages warn recipients their accounts have been breached and implore them to provide "verification" information which authorized users would already have. Pronounced "fishing," the term is derived from the use of fear-based "bait" to snare victims, according to a "TechEncyclopedia" article at www.techweb.com. When voice messages are employed, the term "vishing" is applied.

The auto-dialed calls provide small, quick profits for those initiating them, Flick said.

The idea behind them is "give me a few hits, I'll get $5,000 or $6,000 and go," he explained.

No one should ever respond to unsolicited contacts asking for personal information, said Gene Thewes, senior vice president and security officer for the German American Bank Corp.

He said scams such as this one are very sophisticated and can be routed through numerous phone numbers purchased, perhaps, with stolen identification. Their connection of a victim's phone number with the proper bank is "a numbers game," Thewes explained. Knowing the phone prefix for an area and the names of banks operating there, "they might make 9,999 calls and get 25 people to respond." Sixty percent of those might use the bank mentioned in the call.

This scam was successful at taking some money, "but only because customers gave out their information," he said. He declined to say how many customers were bilked or how much money the perpetrators got.

Staci Schneider, press secretary in the Indiana attorney general's office, said Wednesday that office had just received reports of the scam earlier in the day, and was issuing an advisory about it.

Anyone tempted to respond to a phone call seeking personal information such as account numbers should "never use the numbers supplied," Thewes warned. Instead, they should hang up and call the bank directly, by calling a number they know they can trust, such as those in the local phone book.