Just when you thought it was safe to answer the phone…(Staying away from Impostor scams)

This week, we peek in on the ‘imposter’ scam. This scam has many versions. They all center around two major points of focus. First, the scammer convinces the victim that he is a trusted person of authority that works for a legitimate enterprise. Second, the scammer convinces the victim to give up his money (either by giving access to an account, or by making a payment). Everyone is susceptible to this scam – seniors are most at-risk. If you were on the street and some fool came up to you and asked for your account numbers or to get a debit card for $1,000.00 and give it to him, you might smack him. You would surely walk the other way. So, the question begs: why are people so willing to give this stuff up after spending less than 3 minutes on the phone with someone they’ve never met?

Scams and schemes – they’re all just con games

Scams, fraud and confidence schemes all need one thing to work effectively – the cooperation of the victim. Some need more cooperation; some need less. A pick-pocket doesn’t need your cooperation – they just need for you to stop paying attention to your wallet for a second or two. Many scams rely on you to make your cash available…willingly. Most follow the same basic formula.  The trick is to get you to make a payment without realizing that what you are really doing is tossing your money out the window.

Breaking down barriers

We all have internal barriers that make us skeptical when dealing with our money. The feeling you have in your stomach when someone comes to your door selling electric dog polishers is what keeps you from paying the “low-low price of 10 monthly payments of $395.99 each.” Something – your mind tells you – is just not right. So, why do these barriers disappear when we’re on the phone or looking at our e-mails?

It has something to do with the fact that the professionals on the other end of the line have spent their entire careers figuring out how to deal with (and trick) trusting people like us. And it has something to do with fear. That “Oh no!” that they create in your mind acts as a salve for the knot in your stomach and forces you to abandon your skepticism. “Why don’t I trust this guy?” is a lot less compelling than “Oh my G-d. I could lose money!” Especially when the guy you’re skeptical about is talking so nicely and trying so hard to make you feel like you are the center of the world.

Don’t they love me?

No….. they don’t. People selling you things (a new product, a repair service, a warranty) are dealing with you so they can make money – NOT because they looooove you. They want to make money and you are going to make that possible. It’s why people who work for tips smile and laugh when you say something that they don’t agree with. Since breaking down your skepticism barrier is job numero uno for a scam artist, they realize that one way to get your cash is to make you think that they are just trying to help you.

What they say: “We found a virus on your computer and want to help you get rid of it. We’ll save you a lot of trouble, because these viruses can cause real damage. This could cost you thousands if you don’t fix it.”

What you hear: “I’m not here to make money. I just want to help YOU. I will make YOU’RE life better, cheaper and more enjoyable because I love you and want to spread my love by selling this thing right here”

Imposter scam (in the flesh)

The version of the imposter scam that has captured our fancy today has been around for awhile and it works like this:

1. Grandpa buys a new computer.

2. Bogus techie call (Hook…)

After he’s had it for about a week, he gets a call from someone identifying himself as “Jim from Microsoft.” According to Jim, “there are some bad files on Gramps’ computer that would have been taken care of before he left the store…but weren’t.” But don’t worry, Gramps, help is on the way in the form of Jim who will make sure that your computer is in good running shape and free from danger!

3. Believable story, Fear created (…Line…)

To start, Jim just needs to check the computer to make sure that there aren’t any “bad files” left running around in the background and “I just need you to grant me access to your computer” so I can perform the necessary search. “So glad we caught your unit! These virues are really nasty and can lead to thousands of dollars in bills, corrupt files and maybe even a new computer.” We just need to get access to your computer so we can check it out. 

 4. Access given (….and Sinker)

“All you have to do is go click on the link that I’m e-mailing you and then a few YES boxes and we’re set! The cost? Just a few dollars. $199.99 to be exact. But, that’s just a set-up fee. If you let us do this today and keep the program for 10 days, we will refund the money and it won’t cost you anything.”

5. Account numbers handed over. Money spent

“To pay, we’ll need your checking account number and the access code just to debit your account for the $199.99 charge. But, don’t worry, after 10 days, we’ll credit your account for this amount and it won’t cost you anything.” Thereupon Gramps offers up the checking account numbers AND the all-important access code that lets his bank know that it is in fact him (and not some scammer) making the transaction electronically.

Keep in mind, if you enter the account numbers and the access code checks out, your bank could care less where the transaction is coming from. If you live in Akron and the transaction to pay for this $199 software is emanating from Mars, your bank can’t really tell. The only thing they care about is that the access code fits with the right account. If it does…..bingo! The money gets transferred

5. Coming back for more – the mother lode

Thirty days later is when the fun begins. Gramps gets a call from someone else at Microsoft. They are “here to refund his money, so let’s get started. Can I have the account numbers again just to verify, and the access code? Yes, yes, thank you. And here we go…..” [silence and a pause]

“Oh fiddlesticks! I can’t believe I did this. I just deposited an extra $2,000.00 into your account. Aw man. My boss is gonna kill me. I’m in my probation period. They’ll fire me for sure.”

Gramps says “Why don’t you just refund the money back to you and do the transaction for the right amount?”

“I would. But all refunds have to go through my boss and I’m in trouble as it is.” After a few moments of worrying, the new Microsoft guy comes up with a great idea. “I know it’s a little trouble for you. But, if you get a Green dot card or a Money-gram and take the $2,000 that I put in by mistake, you can send it back to me and I’ll put it in our account. That way I won’t be in trouble.” After Grandpa shows the healthy amount of worry “Gee,” he hesitates “that sounds like an awful lot of trouble.”

The rep assures him “Check your statements, you’ll see that $2,000.00 WAS put into the account today. (you can’t be too careful, right?) Once you see that I did put money into your account, you’ll be able to pay us back)” Gramps checks his account and, in fact, there WAS a $2,000 deposit that very same day. Seeing that new-Microsoft-guy is telling the truth, Grandpa goes to the store and puts $2,000 on a Green Dot card to send back to them.

Two things here: First of all, there WAS a $2,000 deposit into Gramps’ account. After the first call (when he gave the scam artists his checking account number and access code) they were able to use that code to take money from his OTHER account – a Pension account – and put it into the checking account just before they called him back to issue him the bogus refund. When he went to verify that there was a deposit he saw one; albeit with his own money.

Which brings us to the second point – they need Grandpa to give the money to them. Even though they have his account number and access code, they don’t want to steal they money. If they do, they’ll break a whole lotta Federal laws AND it would make it much easier for the Feds to trace the money back to live people. If they get paid by a Green Dot card, instead, it will be impossible to trace it to them. More importantly, when Grandpa goes to the cops (or when his kids take him to the cops) he’s probably going to get a shrug and hear something like “Gee, we really don’t know where this money went. It’s going to be impossible to find the bad guys.”

How to avoid the impostors

Hang up! All of the power scam artists possess comes from the fact that you are talking to them (or e-mailing them) and grows every second you do so. Feel queezy? Seems like something’s wrong? Feel like you’re no getting straight answers? Hang up the phone; delete the e-mail; throw away the letter. It’s not a crime to STOP talking to someone.

Wanna cut down on this nonsense a ton? Stop answering the phone altogether. Let the machine get it. If it’s your daughter, she’ll call back (or leave a message).

Let’s slow down: Scam artists all talk a lot – and fast. If they’re filling the air, instead of letting you think for yourself, your less likely to say no.  Usually, the sales pitch is followed immediately with other nonsense that is meant to distract you from your impulse to say No.  If you MUST continue to talk to them do it at your own pace.  Practice saying “OK, now could you repeat the part about the cost,” and “Could you slow down, please?” 

Press them on the details: How did you get my number again? What’s the name of the store that gave you the information? And who did you say you were working for? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? (Give me your extension so I can call you back.) I have a bad part? What’s the brand name? I could be risking losing a lot of money? Tell me where it has happened that someone lost money because of this and how do I verify that you’re telling me the truth?

Google it: Once you’ve asked your questions:

    • Use your friend Mr. Google. Type in the story they gave you and add the word “scam” or “ripoff.”
    • Look up their company name on your local Better Business Bureau’s website.
    • Look up the part name, serial number and any other information you can get out of them about exactly what they are trying to sell you. If it doesn’t exist or get any hits, that’s a pretty good sign they are trying to rip you off.
    • Don’t have a computer? Call a friend, call the BBB, call the Attorney General, call the local library.  The point is – if you don’t do some research about the person who has called you and is asking for money, you’re not trying. 

No You canNOT look into my medicine cabinet: There are laws that prevent people other than you from passing out your personal private information. Your account numbers, your date of birth, your social security numbers, your bank access code; these are all pieces of personal information that are protected by Federal Law. Perhaps you should think twice (or three times) before giving these out over the phone. You wouldn’t let a stranger look through your drawers or rifle through your wallet. Don’t make the same mistake with your computer or personal information.

Don’t call us child, we’ll call you: Other than being a great song from my childhood, this should be your mantra. There is a HUGE difference between someone who called you out of the blue and someone that YOU called yourself. Don’t confuse the two.

What they say: “We were alerted to call you because you filled something out/bought a product/were picked out for a prize.”

What you should hear: “We picked your number off of a list and are trying to trick you into giving us money because scamming nice folks like you is a LOT easier than getting real job.”

Just remember this phrase: If you didn’t start the call, don’t tell them anything at all! 

 Send me a letter (not an e-mail) one of those paper things: Scammers hate mailing letters. They’ll do it. But if they refuse, this should be your first warning that whoever your’re talking to is lying. “Oh, we keep our costs down by not mailing letters. This way we can pass our savings on to you.” Bullcrap. Letters cost 50 cents. Are they saving THAT much money by not mailing you one?  Your answer should be “if you don’t send me a letter, you don’t exist.”

Green dot/money-gram/money-order/western-union all spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E: If you buy anything on the net or over the phone you should use a credit card NOT a Green dot card, Money Gram, Money order or anything else that is instant cash. Instant also means “non-traceable” and “up in smoke.” Most credit card companies have fraud units and will withhold payment to a vender if you call to say that you’ve been ripped off. “We can’t take credit cards, because we need the money right away” or “…because we’re not equipped to take credit card payments.” Both are fibs. Credit cards give them money right away and there are loads of online payment processing services for folks who want to take payment via credit card.  If they say they can’t do this, they’re not really trying.  

Can you help a brother out? This one is as old as dirt. Just a small favor is really the toe-in-the-door to getting your cash into their account. “I’m going to be in trouble with my boss.” Means “Please do this thing you would NEVER do, because you pity me.” As red flags to, this one’s a doozy.

Posted by Mark Wiseman: (who, when he was 10, had to wait hours to hear that Sugarloaf song on the radio. Now he can Youtube it every 10 minutes.  G-d bless the internet)