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Northwest Indiana military wife falls victim to scammers shortly after husband's death

Military widow falls victim to scammers shortly after husband's death
Military widow falls victim to scammers shortly after husband's death 04:16

CHICAGO (CBS) -- When she fell for a sophisticated scam after her husband died, Selena Bell turned to CBS 2 for help, and her story can be a warning to others. 

"My husband passed away on November 7th, and then his memorial was the 13th, and then this happened on the 21st," Bell told CBS 2's Lauren Victory. 

On Nov. 21, Bell received a fake fraud alert via text that started a weekslong ordeal. 

Her husband, Tyrone Bell, had recently died. He served three tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq, and was awarded the Purple Heart. Days after his death, scammers swooped in. 

"I seriously really believe that these scammers go through obituaries and stuff so they can take advantage of people," Selena said. 

She assumed the fraud alert was from her bank, USAA. The scammers were so sophisticated, that when she called the number on the alert, she was put on hold and heard the USAA theme song playing. 

In her time of need, Selena inadvertently gave a scammer posing as a USAA employee critical account information, giving them access. Then things got really strange. 

The cyberthief deposited a $4,500 check into Selena's account, despite it being made out to John Doe. 

"Nothing seemed right about this check. It's to a John Doe," she said. 

Even though it was an obvious fake, USAA allowed it to go through. Then, using her account, the scammer did a series of Apple Cash transfers to a mystery man named Marquis. 

So when did she realize something wasn't right?

"The next morning, when I looked at my bank account and I saw it was negative," Selena said.

Her account was negative $5,034.72

"My mom's been having to give me money for the bills and for groceries," she said.

Selena was not only responsible for all the cash the scammers drained from her account, but also the $4,500 from the bogus check because it eventually bounced. 

"I'm very angry," she said through tears.

Selena still can't believe she fell for the scam, or the response she got from USAA, a bank that caters specifically to military families. 

Despite the John Doe check, and a police report that uses forms of the word ''fraud'' no fewer than six times, she got three letters from USAA saying ''we have determined that the transaction is not fraudulent.'' 

Then it got worse. The bank garnished the survivor benefits for her husband's death – her only current source of income. 

"We're not thinking straight," Selena said. "We're more vulnerable and they picked me this time." 

It's Christmastime, so at least the story took a happy turn some 24 hours after CBS 2 got involved.

"I got my money back!" Selena said.

After CBS 2 looked into her story and contacted USAA, they suddenly told her she wasn't at fault. 

"That was it," she said. "Yeah. It was magic."

Selena said "tons" of weight were lifted. 

USAA said it has ''sophisticated fraud monitoring detection processes," but had no answer when pressed how those processes allowed a check made out to John Doe to be deposited in Selena's account. 

The bank also has a generous immediate funds availability policy to help military families, but as this case shows, it can also help scammers. 

The lesson here: if you get a text or phone call from someone pretending to be your bank, don't answer. Call your bank directly, only using the number on the back of your credit or debit card. 

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