It’s time to renew your car warranty! Want to consolidate your credit card debt with a lower interest rate? Want to get rid of pesky viruses on your computer? These are just a few of the “offers” received by almost everyone, and the volume of these calls amount to several billion reports to various authorities over the past three years. That call count rises significantly since the vast majority of the calls go unreported.
Are the scams effective? The answer is “yes.” Even if only one-hundredth of one percent of these calls result in the criminal stealing money, that means 100,000 thefts per billion calls. So why are these calls effective?
Phones are the easiest means of contacting anyone. In general, people are hardwired to pick up the phone, and, when doing so, to behave in a polite manner. In addition, criminals are adept in the use of social engineering; scammer techniques that play on emotion result in victims complying with criminal requests.
When examining the motivations involved with the crime, it becomes clear that this is a two-way street; both the criminal and the victim are motivated. While some are seeking to commit mayhem, most phone scammers are driven by money through either direct payments or the sale of collected information. For the victim, motivations include the following: greed – the opportunity to get goods or services at no or very little cost; submission to authority – if we believe that the caller is authentic and official, we are more likely to comply; social consensus – if people I know, or even don’t know, think this is a good deal, I am more likely to comply (why are home shopping programs so successful?); fear – possibly the strongest emotion to which people respond without the use of common sense or reason; love – this emotion is the root of why romance scams are successful.
The top phone scams reported to authorities are clearly linked to the motivations identified: Free offers of prizes, products, and vacations (if something is offered to you free of charge by someone you don’t know, you are not the consumer; you are the product); Extended car warranties; credit card interest reduction; computer tech support (Microsoft, Apple, and Intel do not monitor your devices to identify problems such as viruses); law enforcement or government agency imposters (government agencies do not call, text, or threaten, nor do they accept payment by gift card, Venmo, Zelle, or cryptocurrency, and law enforcement will not call you to warn you of an arrest); charities – scammers play on our emotional need to help those in need such as flood victims and war victims (beware of scammers impersonating well known organizations); politics – in an election year you can expect numerous calls from candidates and parties requesting support. Criminals realize this and will impersonate campaigns to either obtain money or credit card information.
There are several tips to consider when dealing with phone calls: 1) Never provide personal information to a caller unless you can independently verify identity; 2) Never allow strangers access to your connected devices unless you are absolutely certain that the caller is legitimate; 3) If asked to donate to a cause, request a pledge card. Be cautious of calls made by professional fundraisers. Always ask if the caller is a professional fundraiser or volunteer, and how much of a donation goes to the beneficiary of the donation; 4) Do not provide credit card data to someone on the phone unless you can independently verify the identity of the caller; 5) Do not call a number back unless you are able to verify that the call is legitimate; 6) Do not press any key to be placed on a do not call list. That action will result in more calls; and 7) Register your phone with www.donotcall.gov.
Finally, if you lose money to a scam, file a police report and report the scam to www.ftc.gov. If critical information is compromised, report to the appropriate agency or company (e.g. credit card company, Social Security Administration, Medicare).
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. Questions or concerns? Contact email@example.com.