Who hasn’t fantasized about discovering a hidden bank account — perhaps funded by a kindly relative — that could magically help us pay our debts?
That’s part of the attraction of a persistent scam that is floating around on the internet. The pitch, however, is that the benefactor is Uncle Sam — and he is greedily hoarding piles of your cash that you can access any time to pay bills, if you’re in the know.
The scheme, promoted in online videos as well as through e-mails and phone calls, tells of “secret” government bank accounts that consumers can tap to pay their bills or make purchases electronically, using their Social Security number as an account number, combined with a Federal Reserve Bank routing number — a number used by the Fed to sort and process payments between banks.
In July, several regional Federal Reserve Banks, including the Atlanta Fed, home to the office that handles most payments involving checking accounts, issued statements warning the public.
“Any video, text, e-mail, phone call, flier or website that describes how to pay bills using a Federal Reserve Bank routing number or using an account at the Federal Reserve Bank is a scam,” the warning from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said.
The Atlanta Fed’s statement said, in part, that the Federal Reserve provides banking services only for banks: “Individuals do not have accounts at the Federal Reserve.”
So, no, there is no secret federal bank account. And if you pretend that you do have one, your payment will be rejected and returned unpaid.
From the end of June to Aug. 15, nearly 107,000 payments, totaling more than $100 million, have been reversed because of the scam, said Jean Tate, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Fed, in an e-mail.
People who have tried to pay bills using the fictitious accounts may be charged penalty fees and late fees from the merchants they were trying to pay. The payments have been made to utilities and online merchants that allow online payments using checking account information, Tate said.
The scheme has created an online duel of sorts. On one side are proponents of the scam who explain how to do it, in videos that feature authoritative voice-overs while displaying images of Social Security cards. On the other side are videos — often created by people who say they tried the method, only to end up having the payments reversed — warning people of the scam.
It’s not clear what the ultimate goal of those promoting the payment scheme is; Tate declined to speculate on their motives.
Still, consumers should be wary if they are contacted in any way about the scheme because any scam involving a Social Security number suggests that one motive may be identity theft, said Lois C. Greisman, associate director of the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission.
Jane Larimer, executive vice president and general counsel at the Electronic Payments Association, said the scheme was akin to ripping a check out of someone else’s checkbook without that person’s knowledge and using it to make a payment.
The New York Fed said that law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, had been notified and that the Federal Reserve banks were cooperating in the investigations.
Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.