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An angry stranger sent me a Zelle payment by surprise! Is this a scam?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

What’s the safest thing to do if you receive an unexpected Zelle payment and then an angry stranger asks you to send it back?

That’s something Erin Scheithe wants to know. She recently received a surprising text that an unknown person had made a $925 Zelle payment to her. Soon after that, a panicked woman emailed, pleading for the return of the misguided funds. But when Erin asked her bank for guidance, things really started going wrong.

Erin’s frustrating tale is one you’ll want to read if you have a cash app like Zelle or Venmo installed on your phone. Although these services can be a great way to send money to friends and family, they’re also a great way to lose a ton of cash. Here’s what you need to know to help you decide if a money transfer app is right for you.

I think a scammer just sent me cash through the Zelle app!

Erin hadn’t been expecting any payments on the night that the money in question suddenly appeared in her bank account.

“I received an alert that a person I had never heard of sent me $925,” she recalled. “The notation said it was for cars and labor.”

Completely confused by the message, Erin says she then signed in to her bank account. It shocked her to see that there was indeed a pending deposit of $925.

I did a Google search, and I your articles popped up about cash app mistakes. I immediately assumed that a scammer had sent the money and was very suspicious. So I told the sender that I needed to speak to my bank before I did anything further. She really wanted the money back right away. But I knew that wasn’t a safe thing to do until I did some research.

Next, Erin contacted her bank and explained the situation.

It surprised me that my bank offered no way to refuse the money transfer. When I asked the bank officer what to do, he said to send it back the same way it came. That seemed very risky to me due to the large sum of money. Additionally, I didn’t actually have this person’s information. My Zelle account showed that I received money from [the name], with no other information other than a reference number.

Not willing to risk it, Erin asked her bank to reverse the transaction from their end. She hoped her bank could leave her out of the entire process.

“We can’t do that,” the bank officer explained. “Zelle transfers aren’t reversible.”

As you’ll see later in this fiasco, that statement remains in dispute.

Is this a Zelle scam or a confused stranger?

Erin found her bank’s lackadaisical approach to her dilemma maddening. All she wanted was to have the pending transfer blocked or have the bank safely facilitate the return of the money. But her bank agent told her that neither request was possible. Having no idea if the  person who sent the money was a scammer or not, Erin was not willing to independently reverse the cash app payment.

By now, the funds had cleared, and the sender was becoming more insistent.

I am desperate to get my money back. I’ve spent hours on hold with my bank. I think it would be easier if you just send me the money. My bank said you should send it back via Zelle. Could your family do without $925 for a week? Mine can’t. Please.

The exchanges between the two remained cordial for several days while Erin tried to figure out what to do. But then, as we’ve seen in previous cases, communication broke down.

The stranger demands the return of the Zelle payment

The sender now claimed that her bank (Chase) told her Erin outright refused to return the money.

Chase told me that you have refused to return my money. Zelle says that you refused as well. If you do not return my money in 24 hours, I will put your email address on every social media platform as a Zelle fraud account. I will sue you for damages. Prove that you are not a thief by sending my money back now!

And 24 hours later, she followed up with an email that simply said: “tick, tick.”

Now Erin was sure that a scammer was trolling her, and she wasn’t about to send the money back to that address.

That’s when she contacted the police, who assigned a detective to the case. Having read some of my other articles covering Zelle, she also sent me an email and asked for direct help.

When Erin contacted me, she was one of about 20 consumers embroiled in cash app payment fiascos who requested help that week.

Although there isn’t anything our team can do for most of these cash app users, I thought we should be able to mediate Erin’s case successfully. As she was the receiver of misguided funds who just wanted to safely return the cash, I wondered why her bank had allowed the situation to escalate so far.

Erin asked me if I thought the person who had sent the money (we’ll call her Lisa) was a scammer. I wasn’t sure. But reviewing the paper trail, I began to see many hallmarks of the “Venmo Chargeback Scam.”

6 steps of the Venmo Chargeback Scam

The Venmo Chargeback Scam is a scheme in which an online predator:

  1. Sends money to a victim’s Venmo account using a stolen credit card and a temporary Venmo account.
  2. Contacts the victim in a panic and asks them to send back the misdirected funds ASAP.
  3. The unsuspecting victim, who, of course, wants to help correct the mistake, sends the money back.
  4. The owner of the stolen credit card discovers the fraudulent transfer to the victim’s account and disputes it.
  5. Venmo now identifies the victim’s account as having received a fraudulent deposit via a credit card. Venmo reverses the original transaction.
  6. The scammer takes off, quickly closing the account and vanishing with the victim’s money.

Can Zelle users get hit with a chargeback scam?

Executives at Zelle, Chase, Bank of America, and others have repeatedly assured our team that the chargeback scam is not possible on Zelle. (See: What can you do if you sent money to the wrong person?)

The reason given is that users can’t fund Zelle payments with a credit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act only allows chargeback disputes for credit card users. Zelle accounts are bank-to-bank transfers, and all transactions are final.

But despite the assurances that Zelle reversals are impossible, the facts in our case files show that various banks have indeed reversed Zelle transactions (at least temporarily). The bottom line is that although the traditional Venmo Chargeback Scam isn’t possible for Zelle users, it is at the discretion of a bank to allow a reversal of a transaction.

For these reasons, Erin and others like her are unwilling to blindly send back money that an unknown person drops into their accounts via Zelle.

But since the sender of the $925 has a highly unusual name — and she has a surprising and unique online presence — I decided to contact her.

This Zelle user is a TV star… on “Locked Up Abroad”!

In today’s internet age, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to remain anonymous. Our team often uses Google Images and other tools to research cases. When Erin asked me if I thought “Lisa” was a scammer, I did a little digging. The first thing that popped up on my screen was an episode of National Geographic’s reality TV series Locked Up Abroad, in which she was featured.

For those unfamiliar with the show, each episode tells the shocking and unpleasant details of some (usually hapless) person who sought quick cash by becoming an international drug mule. Invariably, everything goes wrong, and the episode’s subject winds up in deplorable conditions in jail in a foreign land. Actors portray the events, but the narrative comes directly from the person who got locked up abroad.

In Lisa’s episode, she tells the awful story of how she received a life sentence for running heroin out of a Middle Eastern country. She spent nearly five years in jail there before some finagling by a U.S. senator got her released. (Yes, I got distracted and watched the whole episode. Yikes!)

After watching the episode, I wondered if Lisa had continued on with a life of crime, turning her sights on stateside schemes. I found her on social media and asked her about the current Zelle problems and the threats to Erin.

“I’m not a scammer — I just made a mistake!”

Lisa answered me immediately.

I am not a scammer — I sent this money by accident! Chase told me that they sent the request via Zelle for the funds to be returned, but the request was denied. They said I have no recourse unless the recipient voluntarily sends it back to me. Zelle customer (dis)service said it is entirely on my online banking department to [help me].

So, yes, after nearly a week without the money, overdraft fees hitting the account I meant to send it to, and then radio silence from Erin on my last cordial email message…I went a bit rogue in the hopes it would get me somewhere. I regret startling anyone. If you can help, I would be so grateful!

After I spoke to Lisa, the detective (the one who became involved after she began making threats of a social media blitz) also talked to her. In fact, the detective obtained a letter from Chase attesting to her identity and stating that the transaction was a simple mistake.

Erin then agreed to send Lisa’s money back via Zelle. Lisa was relieved. Erin was relieved.

All seemed corrected.

And then, one hour later, the unthinkable happened.

Bamboozled? The original Zelle transaction reversed!

Checking that the transaction had successfully processed, Erin was shocked to see two debits of $925 in her account. One was labeled “Zelle reversal.” The timing of the Zelle reversal certainly made it appear that a scam was underway.

“I knew it! Lisa is a scammer just like I thought,” Erin wrote to me. “What can we do now? She has my money.”

But I wasn’t convinced.  After all, Chase had provided proof of identity, and the police were involved. It would take a very emboldened scammer to continue with a scheme under those circumstances.

I contacted Lisa again through LinkedIn. Once more, she answered me right away.

“I promise you, I only received the one payment back to my account,” Lisa explained. “I will send back the additional payment if I do receive it.”

So where was the second $925?

Asking Chase and Zelle if this money sender is a scammer

This is not the first case in which a cash app user has received an alert that a Zelle payment was reversed, but the money seems to be in a virtual no-man’s land. (See If a stranger suddenly sends you money by surprise, can you keep it?)

I sent all the documentation over to the executive teams at Chase and Zelle for their review.

Here is the situation right now. At nearly the same time that Erin Scheithe returned the $925 to *****, an additional $925 was deducted with the note that it was a “Zelle Reversal.” It almost seems as if it was an automated process — possibly an algorithm. I do not believe that the additional $925 was transferred to *****. I just spoke to *****, and she said that she only received one payment last night of $925. She also gave that information to the police officer involved.

Is there a place where funds are held during a Zelle reversal? If they aren’t actually being reversed to a person, where does this money go? Erin is quite upset that she was trying to do the right thing and return this lady’s money to her — as per the instruction of both banks), and now $925 is missing from her bank account. It would be great if we can fix this for her before the end of the day. This is a lot of money at stake. I think it would be very stressful for her to have to go into the weekend with this worry. I’m sending you a copy of all three transactions that showed up in her account since ***** first sent her the $925 last Friday.

Thank you!😊 Michelle

Chase: This Zelle user is not a scammer.

Soon Chase confirmed that Lisa had not received more than one payment and that Chase had not received an additional $925 either.

Hey Michelle,
Thanks for sharing this. I can confirm that Chase customer ****** received the funds sent back by Erin Scheithe. She has not received any additional funds.

Chase spokesperson

Our executive contact at Zelle reiterated that the company does not allow chargebacks except in the case of fraud.

Hi Michelle,
Zelle does not hold or handle any funds. Zelle provides messaging between the sender’s financial institution and the recipient’s financial institution to facilitate the payments.

Zelle Spokesperson

Then the executive teams at Zelle and Chase reached out to Erin’s bank to help straighten this fiasco out.

So where did the $925 Zelle payment go?

In the end, Erin’s bank had initiated the “Zelle Reversal” and removed the money from her account but had not actually sent it anywhere. It still took five days for her bank to “find” the funds and return them to her.

Now, finally, Erin had her money back. Lisa had her money back and this case appeared to be successfully closed. Then there was one more surprising turn.

About two weeks later, “Lisa” emailed me to say that she had suddenly received another $925.

Hi Michelle, Guess what showed up in my account yesterday? Yep, another $925 and the description says: ‘returned ref number ******’ and it refers to my original Zelle transaction from the 14th.  I have been on the phone with my bank for 30 minutes and no one knows how this happened. Each Chase agent tells me ‘I don’t see how we could have done this.’

I want to send this money [back to Erin] as soon as possible. But I don’t want to start a fresh round [of confusion].  

Since Erin had already received her money back, it was unclear to me where this surprise credit came from.

I contacted Chase again about this new development, and after a bit of investigation, our executive confirmed:

Hey Michelle, We’ve now debited the money out of [Lisa’s] account and it is on its way back to BB&T (Erin’s bank). 

Chase Spokesperson

It appears that someone at BB&T continued on with the Zelle reversal that it initiated last month. Inexplicably, BB&T transferred the additional funds to Chase several weeks after the process began — and several weeks after both parties had been made whole.

Now that Chase has reversed this last transaction, we can finally put this case completely to rest.

But if this tale doesn’t make you think twice about any cash app on your phone, I don’t know what will!

How to avoid a Zelle scam if a stranger sends you money by surprise

Unfortunately, each week our team receives more and more requests for help from users of money transfer apps. A significant portion of these cases involve a sender who has made a mistake and sent a payment to the wrong person. Often both sides of the equation believe they’re dealing with a scammer. As a result, emotions are high, and the solution offered by the services and banks to work it out between themselves only breeds further suspicions.

What is clear is that there is no truly safe way to correct the problem if a stranger — scammer or not — transfers money into your bank account. But here are some tips to consider.

  1. Don’t install any money transfer app until you understand it
    The potential for scams via money transfer apps is high. This is especially true if you don’t truly understand the service. A common trait among many of the consumers who find themselves in trouble with these apps is confusion. Most had no idea of what they agreed to when they installed the cash app. It’s imperative that you read through all the terms and conditions of any new technology you’re tying to your bank account. Remember, there is currently no way to stop an incoming transfer of money on Zelle. This omission is a considerable concern.
  2. Turn off Zelle – remove it from your bank account.
    Many Zelle users are surprised to learn that there is currently no mechanism that allows the receiver to decline a transfer. This seems like a gaping hole in the service that exposes users to potential scams and unwanted problems. A user should have the ability to accept or decline a deposit. At this time, the only way to be assured that you won’t receive a cash drop from a stranger is by turning the service completely off.
  3. Verify the identity of the sender
    If a stranger sends you money and then starts sending you requests to send it back, you’ll want to verify that person’s identity. Do not blindly send back the cash, as this action can expose you to additional problems. You’ll need to take this step in conjunction with the other steps below. Privacy laws forbid the banks from revealing the sender’s identity, but unless the person is a scammer, they should be willing to prove themselves to you. Ask the person to send a copy of their ID.
  4. Ask your bank for help
    The current guidance offered by all banks we’ve contacted about misdirected cash app payments is that the two parties should work it out among themselves. The inability for users to be able to correct mistakes without exposing themselves to potential fraud is a significant flaw in the system. Still, users who find themselves in this unpleasant situation should ask their bank for help. Make sure to put all efforts to fix the problem in writing.
  5. File a police report
    With such large cash losses at stake, it is not uncommon for desperate senders to escalate to something that could probably be considered harassment. Of course, scammers also deploy harassing tactics to speed their scheme along. This behavior is startling to an innocent receiver of unwanted cash who is just trying to figure out what to do next. If someone sends you money and then starts harassing you, file a police report. As was the case here, the police can try to facilitate a peaceful exchange and also help verify the identity of the sender. You can also file a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Center.
  6. Contact your state’s attorney general: The more complaints an attorney general receives about a particular problem, the more likely the AG’s office will investigate and take action. If you’ve received money from someone you don’t know (or sent money to a stranger) and your bank won’t help you correct the mistake, file a complaint with your attorney general in your state. Here’s how to find your attorney general.
  7. Wait
    Scammers depend on creating a sense of urgency in their victims. They need to keep their prey off guard. So although the stranger who sent you money may be eager for you to correct their error by sending it back immediately, you shouldn’t. Instead, be curious, ask questions, and involve the proper authorities each step of the way. Keep in mind that money transfer apps are currently the preferred method of payment for scammers.  

Remember, currently, there appears to be no safe way to return cash sent to you in error (or by a Zelle scammer). There is also no way to recall a cash app payment sent to the wrong person. These apps may be instantly convenient, but they can also be instantly disastrous, with no clear path to a fix. If you have one of these apps installed, be aware of the danger lurking on your phone. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.