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NewsChannel 3 Investigates: $16,250 wire transfer vanishes in Mexico

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif - Have you ever really thought about how all of us are connected to numbers?

We have a Social Security number, street address and bank accounts just to name a few.

In our Tipline Investigation, you'll see how one mistake with one number can turn someone's life into a nightmare.

Elizabeth Cano saved her money for years to buy a home in Mexico.

In December, she found the one she wanted and wired $16,250 to a bank in Mexico City for the down payment. Everything seemed to go fine until the next day.

"They called and said the money wasn't there," said Cano through an interpreter. 

Cano explained how the seller's representatives in Mexico say the money never made it to the designated account. 

"Nobody knows where the money is," said Cano during an interview at her Santa Barbara home in June.

Cano says she called Santa Barbara County Federal Credit Union in Santa Barbara and spoke with the representative who wired the money for her. 

"He gave her the papers and told her all the numbers on the accounts were right. The one's here and the one's in Mexico. He told her that there was no way possible that the money can get lost,” said the interpreter.

However, weeks went by and the money never showed up in the account in Mexico. So, the seller backed out and Cano lost the home.

Cano contacted C.J. Ward for help seven months later. She said the money vanished. She didn't know if someone stole it or just make a mistake.

But we believed the money had to be somewhere and that it was traceable.

Cano gave us documents that included her bank statements, anything connected to the wire transfer, who she had spoken with and what they told her. We started by looking very closely at the numbers and contacting all the banks involved.

Here's how the wire transfer went:  Santa Barbara County Federal Credit Union initiated the transfer. The money was wired using an intermediary bank. In this case, JP Morgan Chase out of New York. Chase then completed the wire transfer by sending the money to BBVA Bancomer in Mexico City.

"In Mexico, they won't tell her if the person she wired the money to got it or not," explained the interpreter for Cano.

Cano even tried to hire a lawyer in Mexico to find out if someone took the money.

We focused on the paperwork for clues.

The wire transfer form that Cano filled out on December 4, 2018, showed the bank account number at BBVA ended in 8875. But, subsequent documentation showed the account ending in 88750.

Somehow, a zero was added to the end changing everything including where the money would end up.

Investigators at Chase bank helped us and confirmed whoever added the zero made a mistake.

"It's very frustrating because nobody can tell her where the money is," said Cano through her interpreter.

We figured, even if the money ended up in the wrong place, it still ended up some place and we had to find out where.

Among Cano's documents we found electronic messages sent from the credit union to the bank in Mexico. One dated December 28, 2018, three weeks after the money was sent, reads, "this is our third attempt to get info on where funds were delivered to. We do not have response from bank in Mexico."

Another one dated January 2, 2019, "we need to resolve this as soon as possible." That same day, "tried contacting bank in Mexico, no answer. Funds in Mexico."

January 21, 2019, "we have tried to contact BNF several times requiring return of funds. We have not received any response." Records show this went on for months with no resolution.

We eventually contacted a representative at BBVA's main U.S. headquarters in Houston who then put us in direct contact with a real person at BBVA in Mexico City.

We explained the situation, detailing what we think happened, forwarded the documents they would need to find the money. Within days, $16,250 showed up in Cano's bank account at the credit union.

"Very, very happy because for 7 months no sleep because my money lose. And now, thank you because in 1-2 weeks my money back. Thank you, thank you," said Elizabeth Cano.

We did eventually confirm BBVA in Mexico city had the money. They did send us a written statement (see below), but it does not address what happened at their end or if they plan to pay Cano interest for those seven months.

Also, no one seems to know how that mystery 'zero' was added to the end of the account number.

Finally, how did we get the money back when three banks couldn't?

There are several reasons, but one is interesting. It was explained to us that with international wire transfers the credit union couldn't just pick up the phone, call BBVA and say, 'Hey, where's the money?' everything has to be in writing so there's a record of it, but if BBVA doesn't respond, then what?

Well, that's when you call C.J. Ward like Elizabeth Cano did.

Read the entire statement from BBVA Mexico:

We are aware that the customer transferred money to BBVA México from Santa Barbara County Federal Credit Union using another financial institution on December 5, 2018.

Due to regulatory policies, these specific type of transactions are reviewed according to international standards. As such, they must contain specific and detailed information about both the sending and receiving accounts. In this particular case, the transfer did not arrive to the BBVA Mexico account with the required information. Thus, the transaction wasn’t applied automatically

After a careful internal review, BBVA contacted the originating bank, requesting the missing information. However, we did not receive an answer to our inquiry.

Our team takes these matters seriously, and after coming to a final resolution, the money was debited back on June 24. BBVA México assisted with the reimbursement to Elizabeth Cano and worked diligently to resolve the matter.

News / Santa Barbara- S County

C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter.