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Toms River resident Grace Carr didn’t walk into a Bank of America branch in Miami one day in May, but an imposter did.

Using the checking account number belonging to Carr and her husband Frank, and a bogus New Jersey driver license, a scammer cashed a fake check for $1,786.71.

Once the bank discovered the fraud, it placed a lien on her account.

The resulting investigation by Bank of America took weeks, leaving Carr frustrated and angry. She contacted Press on Your Side, and complained the bank was holding her money “hostage.” 

“I am the victim here,” she said.

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Press on Your Side contacted Bank of America to inquire on the pace of its investigation. A bank spokeswoman declined to comment, but said investigations typically take 45 to 90 days. The bank lifted the freeze on day 54, a week ago, Carr said.

In the tug of war between banks and fraudsters, sometimes consumers get caught in the middle.

Fraud against bank deposit accounts rose to $2.2 billion in 2016, up from $1.9 billion in 2014, or 16 percent, according to a survey released in January by the American Bankers Association. Banks prevented another $16.9 billion in losses in 2016, up from $10.9 billion two years earlier.

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Here’s what happened to Carr.

Her situation dates back to June 22 when Carr received an email that her primary checking account balance was below $25. When she checked online, she found her account was in the red to the tune of $885,989.97.

The next day, she went to a local Bank of America branch. She said she thought it was a computer glitch. It corrected itself but she found out that a lien in the amount of $1,786.91 had been placed on her account.

What happened? It was a result of a May 10 fraudulent transaction in Miami.

Someone walked into a Bank of America branch with a check drawn on a TD Bank account supposedly belonging to a food store. The person used Carr’s bank account number and a fake ID to cash the check.

Of course, the check was a fake and later bounced. In turn, the bank slapped Carr’s account with a  $1,786.71 lien on June 25.

During a phone call, a Bank of America customer service representative told her what happened, She was told to file a police report too. 

In the weeks that followed, Carr called the bank numerous times, talking with representatives of the bank’s “Hold Harmless” department and supervisors. 

Everyone she spoke with at Bank of America was nice. But they all reminded her that the bank had 90 days to complete its investigation.

“I am angry and annoyed but I am more frustrated than anything because of how long it took, the fact that they legally have the right to hold on to almost $1,800 of our money,” Carr said. “We were the victims and every time I called, I was told they were doing everything they could, but I should understand they had 90 days.”

A Bank of America spokeswoman did not comment for this report, except to confirm Carr’s case was resolved.

Why did it take so long? 

It’s possible the sheer volume of frauds that banks have to deal with these days played a role.

“Unfortunately, the bad guys are very busy and very active,” said John E. McWeeney Jr., president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Bankers Association. “The level of fraud, particularly involving fake checks, is definitely growing into the billions of dollars range. It’s a real problem.”

The Carrs don’t know how a scammer got their personal information. But they are savvy consumers. They don’t share their information with anyone. And they shred every document or piece of mail that has their name on it. They don’t simply throw things in the trash.

So what can consumers do to protect themselves? The American Bankers Association has some suggestions:

  • Keep your information to yourself. Don’t provide your Social Security number or account information to anyone who calls you on the phone or contacts you online. Don’t share sensitive information on social networking sites, the association states.
  • Have strong passwords. For your online accounts, use a combination of letters and numbers for your passwords. Change them frequently and don’t share passwords between accounts. Use a password manager, such as Dashlane or 1Password, to keep track of them.
  • Shred, shred shred. Shred receipts, checks, bank statements and unused credit card offers before you thrown them away, according to the bankers association.
  • Monitor your accounts. With mobile banking and smartphones, it’s easy. “I check my bank accounts every single day,” McWeeney said. “If something was on there that I didn’t do or my wife didn’t do, I would probably recognize it.”
  • Set up notifications. Your bank can send you a text on your mobile phone whenever a transaction hits your account. “You can set your own parameters,” said James Vaccaro, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Manasquan Bank. For instance, you could be notified when there’s a withdrawal of more than $100 or for any debit card transaction. If you see a fraudulent transaction, notify your bank right away.
  • Protect your smartphone. Use a passcode to lock your device to make it difficult for thieves to obtain your information. Wipe it according to the manufacturer’s instructions before you trade, donate or sell it.
  • Watch out for missing mail. Fraudsters steal bank or credit-card statements to get their hands on your personal information. Try online banking to cut down on paper statements. “Also don’t mail bills from your own mailbox with the flag up,” the bankers association said.

Do you have a consumer problem that needs solving? Contact business writer David P. Willis: 732-643-4042; [email protected] or facebook.com/dpwillis732.

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