JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Lisa McClain’s dog Skye passed away and she wanted to get her other dog Donner a new friend.
“[The] other dog showed signs of being lonely,” McClain told Action News Jax’s Ben Becker. “We thought let’s get a puppy.”
McClain saw puppies on a Facebook listing for Florida mini-Goldendoodles and paid the breeder a $300 deposit through Zelle via her Bank of America account – but then something unexpected happened.
She said the breeder wanted an additional $660 for puppy insurance, but wouldn’t let McClain see the puppy first.
The breeder tried to reassure her in a Facebook message saying that he and his wife fall into a “high-risk group” and that he would never “fraud anyone of their hard-earned money.”
McClain still tried to send the $660 but it didn’t go through – Bank of America cited the “email address is no longer registered to receive transfers.”
McClain says the email was flagged by Zelle and it’s a good thing because both the Florida mini-Goldendoodles Facebook page and another page for Texas mini-Goldendoodles shared the same email address and phone number – while one claims to be based in Jacksonville, the other says the breeder is in Houston, Texas.
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“People have found ways to create loopholes in the Zelle platform,” said Nev Schulman, who has seen this firsthand and is the host of the MTV show “Catfish.” Catfishing is defined as a “deceptive activity in which a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on social media.” Schulman works with Zelle to better educate consumers because Zelle is a popular target since you can instantly transfer cash directly from a bank customer’s account.
“The effective nature of Zelle and such a widely used app gives people a false sense of safety,” Schulman said.
Zelle is owned by seven of North America’s largest banks. In 2021, customers used it for 1.8 billion payments totaling $490 billion but the company but has angered lawmakers like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who has pressured banks to better protect customers.
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“Last year alone, Zelle users were defrauded out of half a billion dollars that we know of,” Warren said during a committee hearing.
According to a report from Warren’s office, from 2020-2022, total claims against Bank of America more than tripled from 49,652 in 2020 to an estimated 160,977. That’s a 224% increase.
“Unfortunately we’re hearing more and more instances of fraud and scams,” said Rachel Gittleman, who is with the Consumer Federation of America which found that many banks denied fraud claims because the consumer “authorized” the payment. While credit card users would be protected in that case, consumer groups think mobile cash app type users deserve that same right.
”It’s about applying existing law to these you know these newer products that weren’t in existence when that law was created,” Gittleman said.
Becker emailed Bank of America, which did refund McClain’s initial $300. A spokesperson said, “We alert clients during the transaction if they are sending money to a new recipient that they should only send to people they know and trust.”
Zelle told Becker, “Our commitment to consumer protection is reflected in the fact that more than 99.9% of Zelle transactions have been completed without report of fraud or scam.”
McClain ended up with a dog from a reputable breeder and learned a valuable lesson - think with her head and not with her heart.
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“I think I got caught up in the ‘I want that puppy’ and missed a lot of signals that were there,” McClain said.
Becker reached out to the puppy breeder and never heard back.
There is expected to be a new law this year to protect people who use Zelle-type apps that will require banks to pay back customers who fall victim to certain kinds of scams.