“I’m sorry did you say you were a scam artist?” (how to spot phone scams)

If a stranger came up to you on the street and said “Hey, do you mind if I go through your purse while you wait for the bus?”  You would probably hit him over the head with it instead.  So why if that same stranger calls you on your cell while you are waiting for that same bus, will you give him the time of day?  Yes you’ll be skeptical. But, if he plays his cards right, you’ll stay on that call just long enough for him to soften you up and let him through that purse of yours so he can see your checkbook.

Used to be the most you had to worry about when leaving the house to spend some money was buying the wrong thing.  Some folks used to say “don’t buy any wooden nickels,” because the threats you faced were when you actually had to leave the house to buy something.  Today, you don’t have to worry only when go out of your house to make a purchase.  The bad guys have many ways to reach right into your house and come get your money, while you’re still sitting on the couch.

Your cell phone and your e-mail account both provide an avenue to reach you at any time of day or night.  And for some reason, if we get contacted through either of these avenues e-mail or cell-phone, we interpret those communications as if they each contain an inherent hint of credibility.

When we get an e-mail asking us for money (or our password or account numbers) it should be met with the same level of skepticism that we have when a stranger asks us for money in the parking lot on the way to our car after the late movie.  Still many of us will keep reading that e-mail in the hope that this might just be the one chance we’ve been waiting for to make some real dough.  This is why people still fall for the Nigerian prince scam.

The tricks of the trade:

Before we describe some of the scams that are still around it probably makes sense to talk about HOW scam artists work and the tricks they use to knock us off of our game.  It’d be easier if we could just ASK if they were scam artists (much like asking if the new guy to the group is a narc)  Unfortunately, we have to figure it out for ourselves.  Remember: the scammer’s only goal is to get you to make a simple transfer of funds.  All they need is your account numbers.  Be they checking; credit card; savings or debit card.  The only thing they seek is those magical numbers.  Magical because they unlock the moola that is hiding behind the door.  Once they have those numbers, the game is over. They each have a map on their desks that contains their business plan:

  • Locate sucker (by phone or e-mail)
  • Gain their trust
  • Suggest a payment
  • Find the money
  • Get the payment
  • Disappear

Instead of thinking:

“Gee they sound so nice and they seem to know so much about me and what I’m thinking.  They just want to help me. They seem like a friend of mine. I should be nice and try to help them to. After all, why would anybody try to steal from me? I’m a nice person and wouldn’t steal from anybody”

You should be thinking:

“I don’t know who this person is. They could be anybody. They SAY that they have some business with me, but how do I know that’s true?  I’ll bet they are crooks, living in some foreign country laughing at apple pie, Chevrolets and me! I’ll never believe them!”

Here’s how they’ll do it

  • The Lure of the BIG SCORE! – This is really at the heart of every con. Make the person think they’re about to hit it big.  Many of us suffer from the lottery mentality – wishing that you hit it big, but thinking you only have to spend minimal effort (like a dollar) to get it.  Scam artists know this and try to tap into that feeling when they try to con you.
  • Using fear – Oddly, this is just more of the BIG SCORE! idea. The con artist is trying to scare you into thinking that you will lose out on that great thing; or that you will be set up to suffer some great unseen harm if you say “no.”  Sure it’s scary to think that your computer could get hacked, your ID stolen or your house burgled.  But that’s not the reason to say Yes to the person who calls out of nowhere to try and save you.
  • Using mirroring – This is when they listen to what you say and pretend to be just like you.
    • If you mention the dog, they are a dog person;
    • If you mention grandkids, their favorite grandmother just passed away;
    • Whatever city you are in, they just Loooove your college or pro team.
      Being able to process some off-hand comment by someone, turn it around and pretend you have the same thing in less than a second is an art form, to be sure.  Just remember: you’re talking to the artist!
  • Pressure you to act NOW – They know that if you don’t say YES while they have you on the phone during the first call, you will probably not fall for their scam. If you hang up – or just say NO – they have no power.  E-mail scams also contain some pressure to act fast.  That comes from whatever fear they are trying to fill you with.
  • Do a lot of fast-talking – scam artists know that the only way to keep you from being careful is to fill everysinglesecond with the sound of their voice. They figure that if you’re listening to them, you won’t hear your own brain screaming “Ahem…RED FLAG!”  Evasive answers, long-winded explanations, phrases that just don’t sound right, ANY feeling in your gut of doubt or a hint that you don’t trust the speaker should register in your brain as if you’re watching a magician who’s really bad at card tricks. (you’ll gladly watch the trick; but ain’t no way you’re gonna give him a tip)
  • Keep you engaged/won’t let you stop the conversation – Every scammer knows that the victim’s only weapon is to end the conversation/hang up/walk away.  Nobody ever got arrested for hanging up on someone.  Almost every scam victim we talk to says some variation on the phrase “Well he sounded so nice.”

Author’s plea for secrecy: Try not to tell Mrs. Consumer Courage that we’re recommending that you hang up the phone.  She’s the only person we’ve ever seen who will apologize to the person on the other end that she’s about to hang up. (I’ve actually seen this)

  • Change the subject
    • You’ll say: “I want to think this over”
    • They’ll say: “well you have to act now, because this deal won’t be open for much longer”
    • You’ll say: “Can you send me something in the mail?”;
    • They’ll say: “Well, this is how we keep our costs down. We’re only offering this over the phone.”
    • You’ll say: “I’ve read about this. There was an article in the paper about how your product breaks after an hour and a half”
    • They’ll say: “How about this weather!”
  • Can I get this money back? –  No scam is complete until the bad guys get paid. To do this, you need to give them some account number.  What they really want is money that is untraceable.  Your question to yourself if you’re about to make an online (or over the phone) payment is: If I’ve been duped, can I get any of the money back?  Scammers will tell you all kinds of things designed to make you pay, using a method that will not allow you to get your money back if it all goes south.
    • What kind of payments should you worry about?  
    • RED FLAG payment types = anything that acts as instant cash. Once the funds are sent, they are gone for good.  All of these: checking accounts; debit cards; Money Orders; Green-dot cards (any pre-paid debit card) are instant methods and a scammer’s dream.
    • Not so red flag payment types = Most Credit Cards have fraud protection; Pay by mail usually involves a check (so that’s bad). But anytime you’re paying by mail, you have a lot of time to rethink the whole idea (which is good);
  • But “I’ll never fall for that” – Sure you won’t.  But consider this, Consumer Courage had helped people of all ages, incomes, educational levels, racial groups, temperaments and shoe sizes.  Trust us when we say “Nobody is immune to scam artists.”  Strong one day – weak the next; Sharp one day – airheady the next. That’s all part of the human condition.  Trust us, if they get you on a down day, it won’t be pretty.
  • Can you take me to dinner first? – One of your first rules should be: Don’t pay anybody the first time you speak with them. (of course, if YOU started the call this isn’t so important) This is meant for you to refuse to pay anybody who calls you out of the blue.

How to protect yourself

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular scams that are out there.  (They might not all look exactly as they are described here, so don’t get caught up in any one aspect.)

Grandma I’m in Jail!…

  • Target: seniors, or anybody old enough to have grandkids.
  • What happens: grandma answers the phone at 2:00 a.m. and hears “Grandma?” She says her grandson’s name into the phone and the scammer says “That’s right. We have [insert grandson’s name HERE] under arrest. You need to bail him out or he’ll be in trouble.” Grandma gets her checkbook and pays the bail.
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: “Give me your number, so I can call the police.”

Security Department needs to verify account numbers….

  • Target: anyone with an e-mail account.
  • What happens: scammer (pretending to be your bank or phone provider) sends an e-mail asking for your account (or social security) numbers so they can “verify” your information.  You respond to the e-mail with your password, etc and they hack into your computer or bank account and ruin your day.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) deleting (or NOT opening) these e-mails; and (2) realizing that no company will EVER use e-mail to get your personal info.

Collecting money on a fake past-due bill….

  • Target: anyone who has bills.
  • What happens: scammer calls you about a fake “bill that is unpaid and about to go to collections,” and threatens to arrest you (or your relative) who owes money.  Lots of stern language and mentions of jail.
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: (1)“send me a letter that proves I owe you this money”; (2)“you can’t arrest me for not paying my bills”; or (3) “give me your number so I can call the local police and the Attorney General.”

Pay a fee to win the Lottery….

  • Target: anyone who wants to win the lottery.
  • What happens: scammer calls and says that you won some far away lottery or contest, but need to pay a fee to get your money. First you pay a small amount. But, since you didn’t win anything, they keep calling back to get more money in larger and larger amounts.  After a while, you keep paying (first out of home, then out of shame)
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: (1) “It’s illegal to charge a fee to claim a prize”; (2) “I’d like your name and phone number to give to the FBI”; or (3) “Send me a letter that tells me exactly what I won and how much I have to pay.”

Can you cash this check for me? My bank is _________________….

  • Target: Anyone with e-mail and/or a bank account.
  • What happens: Someone wants you to do them a favor.  They’ll tell you a sob story about their bank not cashing their check for them (“I bounced a check, now they make me wait” or “there’s a hold on my account but I don’t have time to fix it”)  They will give you a check made out to them that looks very real. (so real, it will actually fool your bank)  All you have to do is cash it and give them their money.  Many times they offer to let you keep some of the money “for your trouble.”  After putting the check into your account and waiting  for it to clear you send them the amount of the money from the check. A week later, your bank says:

“Oops! Even though we told you it was OK, the check you gave us was a fake (yes they can actually do this after telling you that it’s OK) Unfortunately, now you owe us for the money we paid out to cover the check that YOU wrote.  Oh, you can’t find the scam artist? Too bad. You still owe us”

  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) not doing favors that involve you giving people your own money – unless it’s your Mom; (2) practice saying the phrase “Aw. I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you.”

Imposter Scams

  • Target: (mostly) Seniors
  • What happens: Caller tries to impersonate a person of authority, such as: an IRS agent; a bill collector; some government agency looking for payment; a bill collector threatening a relative with jail for non-payment.  You are worried that you (or a loved one) will end up in the slammer, so you agree to pay.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) Staying calm when someone on the phone threatens you; (2) ask for them to send you a letter stating whatever story they are telling you; (3) ask for their name, address and phone number so you can give it to the Police or State Attorney General to make sure it’s OK.

Free iPad, iPhone (or some other gadget you’d like but can’t afford) if you would just “help them out and participate in a survey”

  • Target: (mostly) Seniors
  • What happens: Caller (or letter’s author) invites you to participate in a survey to check out this new product/rate this new service.  As an incentive they are offering some big-ticket item. One hint that this is a scam is that the giveaway is expensive.  The survey is just a ruse to get you on the phone to answer some personal questions so they can steal your Identity.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) Not participating in any surveys; and (2) if you must, pull the plug once the questions get personal. Promise yourself to never give out your date of birth, social security number or checking account number to someone on the phone. (Especially if it is to “make sure we can give you the free gift!”).

So how do you fight them?

We’re not sure there’s one specific thing to do differently to avoid getting scammed.

  1. Sign up for the Federal Do-Not-Call list.  This will stop a lot (but not all) of the unwanted calls to your house.  You can submit your home and your cell numbers for the list. It’s free.
  2. Be more skeptical than you already are, for starters.  If you are dealing with somebody and you can’t see them, try imagining that they are in Kiev and not some Mom-n-Pop store down the street.
  3. If they have some personal information about you, don’t be blown away and automatically assume that you have reason to trust them.  Realize that if the person calling you has the internet, they can get loads of info about you without trying very hard at all.
    1. Information about you does not equal trust.
    2. Information about you equals internet capabilities and opposable thumbs.
  4. Trip out your home phone and Don’t answer if you don’t know who it is
    • Get voice mail you can hear while the message is being left.  There’s no sin in screening your calls. People who want to scam you will hang up, your daughter will leave a message.
    • Get caller ID.  While it’s true that scammers can fake the caller ID, they are less likely to program the phone to show your Nephew’s number.  They are way more likely to have the number show as “out of area” or “toll free call” or “000-000-0000”  It it’s any of these don’t answer!
  5. You have a dial tone…use it! If you do answer and someone is trying to sell you anything or you feel uneasy for any reason, hang up!  This is not a crime.  Nor can you get into any trouble at all with anyone for hanging up. It’s your phone and your nickel. Don’t be shy!
  6. Don’t pay over the phone, until they send you something in the mail first.  Whoever it is, demand written confirmation of whatever they’re selling, peddling or demanding.  If they can’t afford a stamp, they’re out to trick you!
  7. Do not give out any personal information.  No matter who it is, or what the situation is: if they called you first, they don’t get your info.

Posted by Mark Wiseman (who once had his father hang up on him because he didn’t answer fast enough. Dear old Dad gets an “A” for being a courageous consumer, but a “D-” for making us feel like he really wanted to talk to us)

How to avoid phone scams

We’re not so sure that you can get away with NOT paying for something on the net (or over the phone).  It’s way too convenient to pay your bills with just a few clicks. For those of us who used to be wary of paying for ANYTHING on the net (Bills, clothes, a great bargain…whatever) paying for the first transaction was the greatest leap. After that, our collective skepticism disappeared quickly and we were buying stuff on the web like crazy.
But, the question begs – how do you take advantage of all of this technology (and pay bills from the convenience of your own home) without getting took.  To be sure, there is a massive difference between the various types of transactions.  The two main categories are:

  1. Making regular payments to a vendor that you are used to dealing with; and
  2. The one-time payment for a great deal, or to pay someone who has reached out and contacted you.

I’m not worried at all…

When you’re paying a bill, you have a relationship with the company that you’re paying. (we’ll call these “regular bills”) You trust that your money is actually going to be applied to the balance due and you are receiving something in return for your payment.  Your worries when paying this first type of bill are centered around whether your information gets hacked from the company you’re paying; whether your own computer is going to get hacked; or whether you are on the correct website (and not a lookalike site set up to rip off the folks trying to pay their bills). 

….But should I be?

The second type of payment is what we’re most concerned with here.  You are about to pay somebody (either on the web or over the phone) that you have not done business with in the past and may never see or hear from again.  Everything about the transaction you are paying for is different from a regular bill. (we’ll call these “standalone payments”)  Standalone payments could be a payment that you WANT to make (buying something new); a payment that you HAVE to make (a bill that’s overdue); a payment that you only THINK you have to make (you get a call in the middle of the night from a relative in trouble); or a payment that you make willingly, but probably shouldn’t (paying in response to a call that offers a stock tip/business deal/threatens legal action). 

Whatever the reason, standalone payments are where so many people get hung up.  They’re not as careful as they should be and let their desire to act quickly cloud their judgment.  With standalone payments, the mindset of the players (you AND the person you’re paying) is very different from the mindset of the parties for a regular bill payment.  Both of the parties to the regular bill payment want you to come back for more.  The fact that you both have to deal with each other again adds trustworthiness to the whole enterprise.  

The standalone payment is different for everybody.  You want a deal and the person on the other end of the line just wants to make a sale.  These can be a lot more dangerous for consumers than regular bill payments.  The more sketchy the deal gets, the more the person on the other end of the line is really just hoping that they get as much cash out of you as they can, because they are never going to see you again.

How can you protect yourself?

Usually, we can come up with a saying that helps you to remember how to stay out of trouble. “Don’t run with scissors,” or “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” or the ever-popular “Don’t…..just don’t.”  But, how to protect yourself from making ill-advised payments on the web (or the phone), can’t be summed up by a short, easy-to-remember saying.  What we can do though, is create a scale that will let us rate the transactions.  The higher on the scale your transaction is located, the more confidence you can have that what you are doing is legit and that your money is going to end up in the right place.

Editor’s Note: the closest we can come to a catchy phrase is: “stop answering the phone!” (Don’t worry. If it’s your daughter, she’ll leave a message or call back).  Something about the proliferation of cell phones makes us think that we have to answer every call…and now! But, an answering machine that you can listen to while the caller leaves a message is one of the best ways to keep the phone-scamming folks at bay.

Here is our “scale of reliability” for all dealings that you have where you have the chance to pay someone over the net or over the phone: 


If the call (or deal) is closer to the 100% line, you’re in pretty good shape.  If it’s closer to the zero% line, the payment you’re about to make is not going to end well.  The transactions at either end of the scale are the easy ones.  What’s not so easy is deciding what to do if you’re in the middle. Let’s try to put our fingers on how to make the choice easier when you are getting ready to pay, but something in your gut is making you think twice. 

How do I decide whether to pay? 

  • 100 % OK – Very High percentage reliable: You found them because of research you did on your own.  Not only did YOU initiate the contact, but you’ve spent a good amount of time researching the item/service you want to buy and the company you want to buy it from.  More importantly, spending the money is YOUR idea. This distinction will come more into focus as we move down this scale and will be a big help when deciding whether to get out your credit card. You can figure this out by asking yourself one question: “Who’s idea was this?”  When you learn to figure out where the idea to spend the money actually started, it’ll help you know when to be more careful.
  • 65% OK – High percentage reliable: Because of research you did on your own, you saw an ad of theirs and called them.  Yes, you responded to an ad. But, you ran across the ad while you were doing research (or you did research, but saw the ad somewhere else). This one is a little different, because the ad was their attempt to make contact.  But, the idea started with YOU; and you know more about the item than just what’s in the ad because you’ve spent time figuring it our for yourself. You can rely on your own ideas, thoughts, knowledge and are much less likely to be taken advantage of.
  • 20% OK – Very iffy: they called out of the blue.  This is where we get into very shaky ground.  If they called out of the blue, the idea to spend the money was NOT your idea.  Your mind should be telling you “OK, let’s go a little slow here,” and “I’m not spending a dime until I’ve had a day or two to think it over.”
  • 20% OK – Very iffy: they came to/called your house because they were “Just doing work in the neighborhood.”  This is a huge problem.  It’s below “they called out of the blue” because anybody who comes to your house has the chance to intimidate you and to trick you by using what he sees in your house as clues.  (This is salesman 1-0-1 and it’s called “Mirroring.” If they see a picture of a kid in an Ohio State sweater – they claim to have gone there. If they see a picture of a dog, they are a dog-person and “You’re not gonna believe this, but I used to have that same dog!” )  If someone comes to your house looking to sell/rent/sign you up for anything you should say (through a closed-locked door) “Leave whatever you have for me to look at on the porch. I’ll call if I’m interested.”
  • 5% OK – Not reliable: They called out of the blue and are offering you something that is free to buy/use/own/rent their product. It’s not free – and you’re NOT interested.  Nuff said.
  • 5% OK – Major concern about whether they’re lying: They are calling and demanding money (You owe a bill; someone you know/love owes a bill; someone you know/love has been arrested and you have to pay right away to get them out of trouble) This is one of the areas where many people are scammed out of their money.  This kind of call CAN be legit, but is almost always not.  Whatever’s doing on, you should not pay a dime before you: 1. Ask them for proof of who they are, where they are and what they are owed in a hard-copy letter; 2. Take a night or two to do your own research (which should include a call to your Attorney General and police).
  • 0% OK – Completely unreliable: They called because you won something and they are just trying to get it to you.  If this ever happens, hang up. (do not pass GO, do not collect $200) Just hang up.  Wanna win the lottery?  Buy a ticket.  Wanna lose a ton of cash? Pay some fool who calls to tell you that you won, but need to pay for “fees,” or a “prize collection tax.”

Next week, we’ll cover When & How you should make your payment and what you can do to avoid all of this nonsense altogether.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who sold magazines over the phone for two weeks in college.  Well…..he TRIED to sell magazines.  His apparent lack of production didn’t quite fit in w/the business model – which had very little to do w/the scale of reliability)