Phone scammers steal millions annually, but better tech may offer help for consumers

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

Three years ago Emily got a weird call.

Emily—not her real name—answered her cell phone and someone told her some recent computer work she’d had done had overbilled her. She was owed $299.

“But in order to (refund it), I had to give them access to my checking account, which is the stupidest thing you can do but they’re so good at this and they sound so sincere,” she said.

Instead, the refund set in motion a scam that lasted years and drained tens of thousands from Emily’s bank account. Once the scammers had her account, they deposited a refund almost $10,000 in excess of the refund amount, only to call back, apologize for the so-called mistake and then demand a wire transfer of $10,000 to make up for their error.

Of course, there was no error. The check they deposited was no good, but it showed up in Emily’s account before it was flagged, so as far as Emily could tell, someone really had mistakenly deposited thousands of dollars in her account.

Emily lives downtown and she’s retired, but phone scams can happen to anyone and they’re not rare. And even though Emily is one of the lucky ones—she ended up getting most of her money back—she is so embarrassed about what happened she only agreed to speak anonymously.

After the scammers called her to report their overpayment, they told her she needed to transfer the excess money from a specific Wells Fargo branch in Evanston.

“The most surprisingly thing was, I got the cab and I said I need to go to a Wells Fargo bank on Howard Street in Evanston,” she said. “We were driving and we weren’t very far and the cab driver said, ‘I know exactly where that bank is because I took another woman there about your age yesterday and I said, ‘Oh man, this is just a huge scam.’”

But, in case it wasn’t, she went anyway because scammers can be very persuasive.

Scammers can spin convincing stories but these days they’re also aided by telephone technology, a resource that once protected or at least warned consumers if something seemed fishy.

No longer.

Tom Kossow is the director of the Midwest region office of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal office in charge of protecting consumers. Kossow said scammers can imitate legitimate-sounding businesses or government offices and these scams bring in millions every year.

“We received 143,000 thousand complaints last year $55 million dollars in reported losses,” Kossow said.

With cell phones, everyone has access to caller ID, but caller ID is irrelevant in the age of VoIP systems or voice over internet protocol. VoIP systems are cheap or free to set up. The system routes a phone call through the Internet and in that way, the original phone number may be masked and a fake or even another legitimate phone number can be passed off as the call’s origin.

Kossow said one current popular scam involves Social Security imposter calls.

“Consumers are receiving calls from a spoofed number that shows it’s the Social Security Administration,” he said. “Victims will be told their Social Security number has been suspended due to suspicious activity.”

This is a variation on another classic scam, a call from the IRS requesting immediate payment. Scammers then request payment via gift card or money transfer or another anonymous payment system.

“The Social Security Administration is not going to call you with this sort of request,” Kossow said.

But scammers will and they have. Kossow said in the past 12 months his offices received 76,000 reports of this scam.

Kossow said if someone is the victim of a scam—or if someone knows a victim—they can call 1-877-FTC-HELP or 1-877-382-4357 or they can report the scam online at www.consumer.ftc.gov.

If the scammer is based in the United States, Kossow said consumers should also complain to the Better Business Bureau and the state’s attorney general’s office.

“Both of those organizations mediate complaints so they will contact the company and let them know they received a complaint about you,” Kossow said. “One thing we found out with people who operate frauds is, they know they are operating a fraud so they want to keep their complaints low, so they will often issue a refund at that point just so they can tell those organizations that they issued a refund.”

Finally, there is a bright spot for wary consumers. Some cell phone carriers are investing into call blocking or better caller ID technology to alert consumers for would-be scammers. Kossow said consumers can check with their phone provider to learn about those options and people can use Nomorobo, an app which alerts users to robo calls and works on Android and iPhone systems. This is one of the few outside apps the federal government does recommend, Kossow said.

“A few years ago the FTC issued a challenge to technologists and offered a reward to come up with technology that would block illegal robocalls and the winner of the challenge was Nomorobo and now that is generally available.”

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