FWN: Responding to spam calls

REGION – Sharon experienced an all too familiar scene. The call warned her of over $10,000 in charges made on her account from several countries and she was asked to “help investigate this” by agreeing to install the app “Open Desk” on her cell phone. The caller told her to withdraw $10,000 from her bank and deposit the money in a special account “to keep the hackers from getting her money.” The criminal told Sharon not to tell the bank “because the hacker might be a person from the bank and this was necessary for them to catch the hackers and break the ring.” A claim was being filed with the FTC and the agency would call her. When the call came on a spoofed phone number displaying “United States Government,” Sharon realized that the whole thing was a fraud and contacted the FTC finding that no claim was filed; she filed one herself.

Here are some takeaways from this incident:

  1. Scammers like to use the phone to commit crimes. Calls are virtually untraceable using spoofed numbers and voice over technology, plus these calls are virtually free.
  2. To the degree possible, allow calls to go to voicemail. Criminals rarely leave messages when the phone is not answered.
  3. Criminals play on emotion and urgency. In this case the loss of $10,000 is likely to trigger a strong emotional response. Any time a caller unknown to you sets emotions into gear, step back and consider how to respond. This can be difficult as emotion often outweighs reason.
  4. Refrain from giving the unknown caller any personal information. This, too, can be difficult. Often the scammers impersonate authority, and generally people respond with obedience to authority. Nonetheless, do not provide any personal information unless you know the person on the phone or you originated the call to a reliable number, not one provided by an unknown source.
  5. Determine if the criminal was successful in accessing personal data from you such as Social Security or Medicare number, credit card or bank account numbers, or other information. Having a list of what was compromised will help in determining next steps. For example, if the information included your Social Security Number, contact www.ssa.gov/fraud/; for Medicare identity theft, www.medicare.gov/fraud. If financial account or credit card information was divulged, notify the company involved and request an account cancellation and reissue.

Other recommendations involve establishing a “defensive perimeter.” While nothing provides 100% protection from fraud, here are some steps you can take protect your assets and information:

  1. Contact the three major credit bureaus and activate credit freezes. Freezes lock your credit reports from others obtaining personal information. Freezes are free of charge and can be lifted if there is a need to provide access. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com and request copies of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus, you will be asked for your Social Security Number and some questions related to your financial report. Review the reports and report any errors or “phantom” accounts.
  2. Activate multi-factor authentication, MFA, with all financial, insurance, and shopping accounts. MFA requires use of an alternative means such as an email or cellular number to verify identity and provide access to the account.

There are many considerations in determining the content of this column: official and commercial alerts, reader inquiries and reports, personal experience and research, and even the calendar, scams can often be predicted by events, holidays, and seasons. It’s not a case of being The Great Kreskin, do a browser search if you aren’t old enough to understand this reference.

Everyone can increase awareness by registering for email fraud alerts from consumer protection sources. AARP issues bi-weekly alerts and anyone, regardless of age, can register at www.aarp.org/fraud. The Federal Trade Commission issues frequent alerts; register at www.consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts. Other organizations provide less frequent messages: The Better Business Bureau – www.bbb.org/scamtips; National Consumers League – www.fraud.org; and, Scam Detector – www.scam-detector.com. Finally, a visit to the website www.ireviews.com/online-scams/ can also provide excellent information on new, current, and on-going scams. Make awareness one of your weapons.

Questions/Comments? Contact egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott, a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network, produces the CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.


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