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Beware: Scam aims to get PIN numbers

The following story sounds so implausible that you might think it was an urban legend of personal finance. But it is no joke.

It's about a dispenser of sound advice who forgot it all in a moment of distress and was duped into giving the PIN number for her ATM card to a crook who cleaned out her checking account.

Michelle Singletary, who writes "The Color of Money" column for the Washington Post, hopes that by sharing her embarrassment, she will help others protect themselves.

Singletary's first mistake was to stuff her purse into what she thought was a good hiding place in her car as she rushed to an aerobics class. Her workout was interrupted by a report that someone had smashed a window of her car. She quickly discovered that her purse was gone and, as she wrote in a column, "within 10 minutes of stealing my stuff, the thief stole something else — my smugness."

Before she could report the theft to police, she was called to a phone in the community center where the fitness class was held. The caller was a "bank manager" reporting that the thief had been caught trying to use her ATM card. The good Samaritan tried to calm the sobbing Singletary and told her not to worry — that the bank would reimburse any money that was stolen.

"I'd totally flipped out," she told Kiplinger's, "and he advised me to take a moment and calm down. I was upset but grateful."

The bank manager coolly asked the veteran reporter to verify the contents of her purse. And then came the zinger: In the midst of sober advice on how to protect herself, he asked for Singletary's PIN so the bank could cancel her ATM card.

In a moment of weakness, she complied. "It's like the moment you say something, you don't realize that you even said it," she says.

The caller was really the brazen crook, who promptly withdrew several hundred dollars from Singletary's checking account. Police say dozens of women in the Washington suburbs have been victims of the scam.

The bank has indeed reimbursed Singletary, and quick cancellation of her credit cards prevented any unauthorized charges. But her purse has not been recovered, and police have no suspects.