Zelle scammers steal $3,500 saved for late Bay Area mom's headstone, Bank of America denies claim

The scam amplified the grief she still feels at the sudden, unexpected loss of her 52-year-old mother, last year.

ByMichael Finney and Renee Koury via KGO logo
Monday, November 7, 2022
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A Bay Area woman was saving up money to buy a headstone for her mom's grave, but lost all of it to Zelle scammers.

GILROY, Calif. (KGO) -- The quick-pay app Zelle is surging in popularity, but so are scams on the highly used platform. Among the latest victims, a young South Bay woman who was saving up to buy a headstone for her mom's grave-and lost it all to the scammers.

"I was devastated,'' 24-year-old Gabrielle Chavez lamented, tears welling in her eyes as she thought of her mom's barren gravesite at St. Mary's cemetery in Gilroy. "That money was supposed to be for my mom, my mom's headstone, and I was supposed to surprise my dad with it."

The scam amplified the grief she still feels at the sudden, unexpected loss of her 52-year-old mother, Diana, last year.

"I thought I heard her calling my name down the hallway,'' Chavez recounted. "I miss her so much, everything about her."

She lamented her family could not afford a headstone for her mother's gravesite, which is set amid a grass-less expanse of the cemetery.

"It's a lot of dirt there,'' she said. "We try to make it pretty with a lot of windmills and flowers. But she deserves a headstone."

The tombstones run more than $3,000 so Chavez, a recent graduate of San Jose State University, worked for the past year as a paraprofessional for disabled children, saving her money to buy a granite grave marker.

She planned to surprise her father once she had enough money - and they could place the stone together..

VIDEO: Bank of America customer loses thousands after being tricked by Zelle scammers with personal info

Just days before the one-year anniversary of her mother's passing, she met her goal. But just as she was planning the surprise, the thieves struck.

It began with a text message on her phone that appeared to be from Bank of America.

"It was exactly the same, like a replica of the text messages Bank of America sends,'' Chavez said.

The text asked if she'd just sent $3,500 through Zelle to someone named Jacob Tanner. Alarmed, she quickly replied "no."

"Two minutes after I got that message the phone rang,'' she recalled. The caller ID said Bank of America. A man on the phone said someone was trying to take $3,500 from her bank account and she had to act quickly.

"I couldn't let them get the money I'd been saving,'' Chavez recalls.

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The man said she should transfer the money through Zelle to a supposedly safe account. She should use her middle name and part of her last name to create a Zelle account, then send the money there.

"Honestly, I'd never used Zelle before. I was so confused,'' she said.

She kept asking the man to let her speak to a supervisor, to make sure this was a safe action.

"He said 'look, ma'm, ma'm, ma'm I would never do anything to jeopardize my job.' ''

MORE: Zelle scam: Bank impostor taunts San Jose woman after stealing $3,500 using her name

However, since the Zelle app was connected to her Bank of America mobile app, she figured it was safe.

It wasn't.

She hit the send button, and $2,000 was whisked away, then another $1,500. But instead of landing in a safe account, it went straight to the scammers' own Zelle account.

"My dad came home I told him what happened,'' Chavez recalled. "He said check my bank account online that's when I found out. It's gone. All my money, gone. I was devastated. I started crying....that money was supposed to be for my mom."

The grave still sits unmarked, but for the photos of her mother, colored windmills, a patch of grass from Home Depot, and flowers the family keeps fresh each week. But no headstone.

"When I went to sleep that night, all I could hear was those stupid men's voices (on the phone) saying "ma'm, ma'm, ma'm.' '' she recalled.

Chavez filed a claim with Bank of America, saying her money was taken by fraud. The bank denied her claim, saying she had authorized the transaction even if it was by fraud. Even if she was tricked. Even though it was a scam.

MORE: How scammers used Zelle to clean out one man's bank account

Zelle is now the leading peer-to-peer payment app with $460 billion in transfers last year according to Zelle's parent company, Early Warning Systems. However, hundreds of millions of those dollars went to scammers - not friends and family.

Many blame the fact the banks own and promote the Zelle platform. By connecting the app to a person's bank account, scammers have direct access to their money. BofA limits Zelle transfers to $3500 per day, which is what the scammers usually get from their victims. Like Chavez.

She was not only devastated by losing her mom and her money, but also she says, losing trust in her bank.

VIDEO: Fraudsters steal $15,000 from Bay Area man's EDD card, Bank of America says 'no error occurred'

"This wouldn't happen to me If Bank of America and Zelle were not intertwined,'' she said. "I've been a customer of Bank of America since I was 15 years old. I've been a loyal customer, and then this happened. They're just like so what we can't help you."

We asked Bank of America why it did not refund her money when it did refund other victims of the very same Zelle scam. The bank said only that it looks at each case individually.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau previously stated that banks must refund "unauthorized transfers" of funds by electronic means under Regulation E of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. It stated that being "fraudulently induced" into providing access to an account falls under the rule...but that opinion is not written into law. Some banks had been refunding money for those tricked into sending money through Zelle or other apps, but the policies are not consistent.

Now some U.S. senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, are demanding answers from Zelle and other payment apps about the level of fraud on the platforms. A Senate banking committee summoned the CEOs of major banks to a hearing. Zelle is owned by seven major banks including Bank of America.

MORE: PG&E imposters use Zelle to steal thousands from Bay Area Wells Fargo customer

For now, Chavez is still trying to raise enough money for her mom's grave marker.

"The scammers have the money instead,'' she said. "They probably spent it already on who knows what."

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