WASHINGTON, DC – A myth that President Obama is giving people money to pay their bills has prompted thousands of people across the country to try to pay for utilities, phone service and loans using bogus bank routing numbers.
United Way of Cleveland’s 2-1-1 changed its answering machine Monday to say rumors of the Obama program were false after fielding dozens of calls.
Later that day, a United Way employee was on an RTA bus when a rider stood up and announced to fellow passengers that Obama was paying people’s bills. The rider told people they could use the red numbers on the backs of their Social Security cards to tap into the government money. Steve Wertheim of United Way said the woman claimed she had successfully paid her electric bill using the technique.
Such unprompted testimonials are spreading the hoax through entire communities, putting consumers, at minimum, at risk of late payment penalties and service disruptions.
In some iterations, the bogus “Obama program” appears to be an identity theft scam. According to news reports, uniformed con men with clipboards went door to door in a handful of states, signing people up by collecting Social Security numbers and then giving them phony bank routing numbers to use to pay their bills.
But here, it seems less scam than hoax.
People aren’t asking for anyone’s Social Security numbers. They’re passing along bogus routing numbers, apparently in the belief they’re real.
What victims should do
The bill-paying myth poses several distinct dangers for consumers:
• If they’re using bogus routing numbers, their payments will eventually bounce, leaving them with late payment or other penalty fees.
• People who were already behind on payments could face serious consequences, including insurance lapses, repossessions or service terminations.
• If they gave their Social Security number to someone purporting to sign them up either in person or by phone, they run the risk of identity theft.
Consumers who fell for the hoax should contact the companies they paid with bogus numbers to arrange for genuine payments as soon as possible.
Those who need utilities or other assistance should contact United Way at 2-1-1 or 216-436-2100 to be connected to legitimate nonprofits who can help.
Anyone who gave a scammer a Social Security number should contact the Federal Trade Commission for ID theft information at 1-877-438-4338.
Jeanette Lee, who works in billing for a Cleveland hospital, said she heard about the program over the weekend from friends and relatives who swore it worked. “They were calling me to tell me to do it,” she said.
An aunt, Lee said, insisted that she paid her insurance and cell phone bills with one of the routing numbers she received through the grapevine.
A nephew used the system to make a car payment.
“The president didn’t announce that when he was in town,” Lee told them, but family members would not be dissuaded that citizens could tap into government funds to pay up to $1,000 in household bills.
“I guess because everybody needs some type of help,” Lee said. “It’s really bad out there.”
One version of the hoax involves using the series of red numbers on the back of a Social Security cards as a bank routing number.
The red numbers actually are a security feature added to cards in 1996 to prevent counterfeiting, a Social Security spokesman said.
FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Meyers said the utility, which operates across 12 states, spotted the trend in May when its payment systems began jettisoning large numbers of phony routing numbers. The company issued a warning that the government program wasn’t real, and the Better Business Bureau followed suit.
But tall tales have spread.
A Florida electric company posted an alert to its customers last week after as many as 2,000 customers tried to use bogus routing numbers to pay bills in a 24-hour-period.
Feeding the hoax — and the testimonials — is that some bill payment systems may give consumers may confirmation numbers when they pay by phone. The confirmation doesn’t always mean the payment was successful – it may only confirm the bank information was logged into the call center, said Lou Tekavcic, a trade specialist for the Better Business Bureau.
“Anybody can call and give you a bogus routing number,” Tekavcic said. “It doesn’t mean it will go through.”
When the bogus numbers weren’t immediately rejected, some victims apparently believed the program was real and spread the word.
One caller told the BBB her friends were trying to make mortgage payments through the bogus program, Tekavcic said.
As Meyers of FirstEnergy points out, consumers struggling to pay bills are particularly at risk. They may believe the government covered their payment; but when that payment is ultimately rejected, their utilities could be shut off or they could be dropped from heating assistance programs that require them to keep up with payments.