NBC4 INVESTIGATES: This Ohio village bank serves millions of customers — and fraudsters prey on it

ATTICA, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s easier than ever to fall victim to fraud in the digital age, but one Colorado man was able to trace just how someone did it to his client.

Prepaid debit cards are a common tool scammers use to steal money, and online debit cards have made ripping you off even easier. Evan Bernabei, a tech-savvy accountant based in Colorado, reached out to NBC4 Investigates after a scammer stole thousands of dollars from his business.

A screenshot of the email from a scammer to Evan Bernabei. Account and routing numbers have been blurred for privacy. (Courtesy Photo/Evan Bernabei)

Bernabei’s accounting firm works with realtors. In March he received an email, seemingly from one of his clients.

“It basically stated, ‘Hey, I’m having issues with my bank. I need to update my bank information. Here’s my routing and account number as follows,’” Bernabei said.  “I get emails like that several times a month from agents — from real estate owners asking to update bank information. So nothing stood out as out of the ordinary.”

The email was actually from a scammer who’d stolen the client’s identity.

“It wasn’t until about a week later that we realized in talking to that agent that he hadn’t gotten paid,” Bernabei said.

To track down the nearly $14,000 of stolen money, Bernabei Googled the routing number from the email. It led to a bank he didn’t recognize.

“It came to a bank in kind of middle-of-nowhere Ohio called Sutton Bank,” Bernabei said.

Sutton Bank is based in Attica — a village in north-central Ohio about 85 miles from Columbus — and has eight branches. From here, Bernabei called the little bank’s fraud department.

“I provided [customer service with] the bank details,” Bernabei said. “And right away she — she looked it up and she said, ‘Oh, this account belongs to Albert Bank. And we don’t really have any control over them.’”

Albert is not a bank, according to its website. It’s a banking app for which Sutton provides “banking services.”

Consumer finance attorney Alexander Darr explained that distinction draws a fine line between the two companies.

“Albert is a fintech company – a financial technology company — that is essentially using the relationship that Sutton has with the regulatory authorities. It’s a licensed bank, and Albert is not a licensed bank,” Darr said.

Bernabei said Sutton’s fraud department gave him a number for Albert’s customer service, something Dabertin said the bank is required to do when someone calls about one of its fintech partners.

“For our card product, it is a legal requirement that in all cases a phone number be provided. And if the cardholder contacts that number, they have to be able to report their alleged error, and the reporting of that alleged error is required by law to result in a prompt investigation,” Dabertin said.

According to a recording that plays when the Albert customer support phone number is called, Albert does not offer assistance over the phone. The recording directs users to its email address and app. After having no luck getting his money back through Albert’s customer service, which claims to only operate via email and text, Bernabei filed a claim through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Darr explained that under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, Sutton Bank is responsible for protecting consumers from fraud involving Albert debit card accounts. As a result, Sutton Bank responded to Bernabei’s FDIC claim and was able to return half of what Bernabei had deposited into the fraudulent account, around $7,000.

The rest of the money, unfortunately for Bernabei, had already been withdrawn. Weeks after Bernabei first complained, Albert told him they closed the account.

Darr’s advice to protecting your pocketbook: “Be engaged with your financial transactions because you do have these rights, but they have to be executed.”

Albert declined to comment for this report.