IN LATE 2012, a Widget Financial Federal Credit Union branch manager opening online accounts wondered aloud why two applications emanated from New York City, far from the credit union’s branches in and around Erie, PA.
Simultaneously, CEO Gail Cook overheard Widget Financial Federal’s vice president of branches take a call from New York City, where a nonmember had mistakenly received information in the mail from the credit union.
That’s all it took to get Cook on the case. She instructed compliance and information technology staff to pull all accounts from New York City, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and found 10 from New York City that appeared similar. The applications bore the same personal information under different names, and Cook discovered someone opened and accessed the accounts from a single Internet Protocol (IP) address.
She called the FBI. An agent came to the credit union, talked with Cook and staff, and left with information about the questionable accounts. In April 2014, the FBI called again to report it had uncovered a gigantic fraud ring involving hundreds of financial institutions—a scam that had gone unnoticed until Cook and her alert team spotted the suspicious accounts.
Five people were indicted for identity theft and filing thousands of fake tax returns since 2005. The operation had cost the U.S. Treasury millions of dollars, with some of the funds turning up in Nigeria. According to the FBI agent who spoke with Cook, the thieves had operated their scam since 1996, but the agency lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute activity that far back.
The good news: No credit union member information had been compromised and Widget Financial Federal suffered no losses.
Recently, the FBI sent letters of commendation to Cook and the employees who discovered the crime ring—the highest honor the agency can give to nongovernment employees. Cook knew the letters were coming, but the honor came as a surprise to her close-knit and cooperative staff.
“We’re a family here,” Cook says. “As a larger credit union with more than 100 employees, we’re all connected and support one another through good times and bad.”