Your cell phone buzzes, you look down and see “No Caller ID”, “Unknown” or maybe a weird number you don’t recognize. Do you answer, or do you just let the call go to voicemail?

Some people, myself included, will let these calls go to voicemail. It’s not a bad idea to ignore calls from numbers you don’t recognize.

Some people answer, they listen, and they follow the caller’s instructions, even if the caller is nothing more than a machine.

So, let’s say you’re one of the people who answers. The machine with a human voice tells you some urgent and potentially bad news. The machine tells you if you don’t want things to get worse, you’d better “press one” or call the phone number provided. Your mind starts to race, and you begin this internal dialog with yourself:

Oh crap!

Wait. Maybe this is a scam.

But what if it’s not? What if I really am in trouble?

It couldn’t hurt to press one, could it?

Ah hell, I can’t chance it. I don’t need any trouble. I should take care of this right now.

I’ve got to find out what’s going on.

After pressing one, a man, a real one this time, gets on the phone and tells you it was smart for you to take this seriously. The conversation goes something like this:

Man: This is John, from the Department of Social Security Administration. May I ask who’s on the line?

You: This is Jane Doe, and I got this call that something is wrong or something about criminal charges.

Man: Yes, thank God you took this matter seriously ma’am.

You: So, what happened?

Man: It looks like your identity is being used to commit felonious acts. These acts are tied to you, and you will be charged with a crime if you don’t act.

You: What do I need to do?

Man: We need to file your paperwork right away to stop the charges. We can mail the paperwork in, but I fear that the courts won’t get it in time. Our other option is to file your paperwork over the phone. This is the best way to make sure this matter gets squared away fast, before you get hauled into court.

You: OK, what do you need?

Man: We need to verify your identity.

You agree, so he proceeds to ask you questions about you. He asks for your name, your address, your age, where you work, and of course, your Social Security number. You give him everything he asks for, and the call ends with some mysterious, but official sounding close.

You’ve been scammed. Sometimes the crooks are targeting your identity (like this example), and sometimes they’re targeting your money directly. Sometime both.

Robocalls are dumb, but they must be working, at least some of the time. There are real victims, or the scammers wouldn’t waste their time. In 2018, there were more than 26 billion robocalls placed to phones in the United States, a 46% year-over-year increased volume. (Hiya Robocall Radar 2018 Report)

This got me thinking, why? The reasons are simple, because it’s cheap for the scammers and it works. People must be falling for these dumb scams. Attackers wouldn’t go through the trouble if these scams weren’t effective, right?

People take the bait, either through ignorance or through a moment of weakness.

Just this week, the FCC adopted new rules to combat robocalls. You might think, “great, let’s shut these sumbiches down!“. Hold your enthusiasm just a minute. Do you really expect the Feds to protect you? Actions by the FCC might help curb the problem, but at the end of the day, this falls on you. Only you can prevent yourself from being scammed.

It’s baffling to think that someone would fall for a robocall scam, but rather than sitting here shaking my head, let’s go through some examples and try to help someone.

Call Number One – Social Security Number Suspension

Here’s the text of the call:

We found some suspicious activity, so if you want to know about this case just press one thank you. This call is from the Department of Social Security Administration. The reason you have received this phone call from our department is to inform you that we just suspend your Social Security number because we found some suspicious activity, so if you want to know about this case just press one thank you.

The message continues and repeats.

Here’s the audio:

Here’s the skinny.

  1. You will NEVER receive a call from the “Department of Social Security Administration”. Besides, the actual name of the agency is just “Social Security Administration” not the “Department of Social Security Administration”.
  2. The Social Security Administration DOES NOT monitor your number for “suspicious activity”.
  3. The Social Security Administration DOES NOT suspend your Social Security number.

DO NOT PRESS ONE.

Call Number Two – Legal Consequences

Here’s the text of the call:

Social Security number the (unintelligible) received this message, you need to get back to us to avoid legal consequences. To connect call immediately, press one.

The message ends.

Here’s the audio:

Here’s the skinny on this one.

I don’t even know what the hell the message says really. All I know is that I don’t like legal consequences. Guessing you don’t either. The fact is, you are not facing any legal consequences, and even if you were you’d be served in writing and probably in person. Nobody calls you to tell you that you’re going to suffer legal consequences on a voicemail, at least nobody who’s legitimate.

DO NOT PRESS ONE.

Call Number Three – Legal Proceedings

Here’s the text of the call:

legal enforcement action filed on your Social Security number for criminal activities. So, when you get this message, kindly (unintelligible) as soon as possible on our number that is 210-361-9633 before we begin with the legal proceedings. Thank you.

Here’s the audio:

The skinny.

A “legal enforcement action filed on your Social Security number for criminal activities”?! This is so preposterous, I’m having trouble thinking of something to write in response. You will NOT receive a recorded call telling you of impending legal proceedings because of criminal activities using your Social Security number. If there were such a crazy thing, you’d be notified in person and in writing.

DO NOT CALL THEM BACK. (Side note: I did. Got a busy signal, so I’m guessing they already got taken down by the carrier/law enforcement).

Call Number Four – Chinese

The text of this call is all in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese. So, I did some translation work*. Here’s what I think it says:

这里是中国领事馆文件通知您有一封重要文件尚未领取中有任何疑问请按铃 查询

in English:

Here is the Chinese Consulate Document to inform you that there is an important document that has not been received. Please feel free to ring your query.

Here’s the audio:

The skinny.

I don’t speak or understand Chinese, so there was no real chance of this one working on me. This is an automated caller though, and there are an estimated 2.9 million people in the United States who do speak Chinese and as many as 1.2 billion people worldwide who also speak Chinese.

One joy of the robocall for scammers is they can reach thousands of phones automatically. It’s no skin off their back if they reach someone who doesn’t understand. Eventually, they will.

Not sure how effective this sort of call is with the Chinese speaking community, but like I said earlier, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work (at all).

(Another side note: Now that I think a little more, maybe this last one wasn’t a scam. My wife is travelling to China next month. WAIT. See, here’s rationalization. Irrational rationalization. No, it’s a scam and I will ignore it.)

TIPS

The first tip is the most important one, so I’m going to shout it. Ready?

  1. NEVER, EVER GIVE OUT ANY SENSITIVE INFORMATION THROUGH ANY COMMUNICATION CHANNEL WHERE YOU DIDN’T INITIATE THE COMMUNICATION.

You get that? I’m going to shout it again. This time I want you to really think about it.

  1. NEVER, EVER GIVE OUT ANY SENSITIVE INFORMATION THROUGH ANY COMMUNICATION CHANNEL WHERE YOU DIDN’T INITIATE THE COMMUNICATION.

Communication channels include phone calls, emails, popups, text messages, and even in-person. If you initiate the phone call, not at the prompting of someone else giving you the phone number to call, you are most of the way there in protecting yourself from scams.

2. Ignore phone calls that originate from phone numbers you don’t recognize. Ignore them, and get on with your day. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message.

3. Be skeptical. You don’t need to be paranoid, but be skeptical.

4. Slow down. Don’t react without giving your mind time to think and process what’s going on. Taking 10 minutes to think things through will not put you in danger, but just the opposite.

5. Ask someone you trust. If you’re not sure whether a phone call or message is legit, ask someone. They’re not tied to the events emotionally in the same way you are. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.

There you have it. You can probably come up with some additional tips along the way, but these are the basics. Master the basics people.

 

 

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