The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

July 13, 2013

Credit unions say members were scammed

By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor

SHENANGO VALLEY — More than 100 customers of two local credit unions unwittingly divulged their account or debit card PINs Thursday evening, giving potential thieves access to their funds.

Mercer County Community and PennStar federal credit unions said when they opened for business Friday they were deluged with calls from customers saying they realized they had been scammed. Victims said they received phone calls or text messages allegedly from their credit union, asking them to verify their account number or debit card PINs - personal identification numbers.

“They were told that something was wrong with their account and asked for their account or PIN number,’’ said Jerry Miller, director of lending for Mercer County FCU. “We would never do such a thing. We would never ask someone for an account or PIN number, because we already have it.’’

As of Friday morning, the credit union with offices in Hermitage and Sharon had been contacted by more than 100 customers who gave out their account information.

“We’ve been answering calls left and right,’’ said Pam Suber, PennStar’s CEO. PennStar’s office is in Hermitage.

What prompted customers to give out the information was that the text or phone message told them if they didn’t, their debit card or account would be shut down.

“They knew exactly what to say. It’s terrible,’’ Suber said of the scammers. “But we would never, ever ask you for a number that we issued to you.’’

Both credit unions said they were blocking use of debit cards and were preventing unauthorized use of accounts.

Neither institution knew how scammers gained access to members’ cell or home phones.

“The member has no liability. The credit union eats all of the loss,’’ Suber said. “We have insurance, but there is such a high deductible we’ll never collect on it.’’

Conning consumers out of information such as passwords or user names for financial gain is a practice known as “phishing” and is often used in e-mails and on social websites.

Sharon and Hermitage police were called to investigate but both departments said they are limited in what they can do.

No other institutions reported phishing scams, both departments said.

“It looks like this is all leading to Texas,’’ said Brian Blair, Hermitage police chief. “Someone running a scam like this has advanced skills and trying to track them down will be next to impossible.’’

Other agencies, probably with federal resources, may be called in for help, said Mike Menster, Sharon’s police chief.

“What you often find is these scams end up coming from countries like Nigeria – places where the United States has no extradition agreements so you can’t do anything about it,’’ Menster said. “The Internet is hard to police.’’

Both credit unions urged their members to contact them if they believe they were victims of the scam.