On the Money: Never give unknown callers bank account number

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I received a phone call from a foreign man who told me I had been selected to receive a government grant of a minimum $10,000 and maximum $25,000. I believed him because I frequently fill out scholarship applications. I gave him my bank account number to deposit the grant but became concerned when he told me that I had to pay a processing fee of $249. He assured me that I could get the money refunded at any time by calling 800-551-7099, but when I typed this number into Google, I was horrified by the articles posted. I hung up the phone and closed my bank account. Is there anything else I can do to stop this scam?

University of Pittsburgh

A: This one has been making the rounds for a while, with the ploy morphing to fit the times.

One recent version targets flood victims. The caller claims to be from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and promises government disaster grants of up to $25,000 in exchange for a $295 processing fee.

The con artists try to trick you into disclosing your bank account number by asking you to verify the number they have to deposit the grant. They hope you'll correct the phony number, giving them access to your account for the processing fee.

By offering you a toll-free phone number to contact if you're dissatisfied, the scammers lend an air of legitimacy to the pitch. They're betting you won't be alert enough to research the number the way you did, Diana.

I called the 800-number you were given and twice got a recording saying wait for the next available agent. I waited several minutes, but no one answered. On the third try, made a week later, I only got recorded music.

Typically, no one answers, authorities say. I read one report of a victim getting through to someone on the 800-line, but as you probably guessed, she didn't get a refund of her processing fee.

The Pennsylvania attorney general's office has received numerous complaints from consumers around the state who have received these bogus government grant calls in recent months, spokeswoman Barbara Petito said. She said the attorney general is sharing information with a number of states in an effort to find the culprits and investigate.

If you get one of these calls, report it to the attorney general's Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555, or file a complaint online at www.attorneygeneral.gov.

Try to get as much information from the caller as you can, Petito said, such as name, address or other contact information. If you have caller ID, jot down the number so you can report it.

To protect yourself, never give out your bank account number, Social Security number or other sensitive information to someone you don't know. Otherwise, you risk having your account tapped or even your identity stolen.

"Identity theft is one of the hardest frauds to recover from," Petito said. "Consumers have told us it's taken years and they still get repercussions."

Patricia Sabatini can be reached at psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066. E-mail your money-related questions or mail them to "On The Money," c/o Patricia Sabatini, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number.


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