Phone-Based Scams are Evolving

Phone scams have always been a problem, and the techniques used are evolving. I recently received a scam call that I almost fell victim to, and have chosen to share my experience and ways to avoid becoming a victim.
 
At the beginning of last month, I received an email from my bank notifying me of a new loan officer being assigned to my account. A couple of days later, I received a voicemail from the bank, asking me to call as my account had been flagged for review. The caller ID came up as my bank, and the phone number the call came from fell in to the pattern of other numbers I receive calls from.
 
I called the number back, and became suspicious immediately.

Strike One

First, a “representative” picked up on the first ring. This isn’t normal. My bank doesn’t give out direct numbers in voicemails, so I was expecting to interact with an automated attendant before speaking to a person.

Strike Two

Next, I noticed that sounds of traffic were drowning out the voice on the other end of the call. Much like answering after the first ring, this isn’t part of a typical interaction with my bank. Calls are very private, and only on a rare occasion can you hear a conversation taking place in the background – and definitely never the sounds of a bustling cityscape. This is where my “spidey sense” really began tingling.

My spidey senses! They are tingling!

Strike Three

After the usual pleasantries, the voice on the other end of my call asked for my phone number.
 
“Well, you called me on it about 5 minutes ago, so you should already have it right?”
 
I provided my number anyway. After a moment of silence, I was told that the number I provided was not in the system and that entering my social security number would definitely work.
 
“Nice. Great job with that phone number. You nearly tricked me, but you clearly aren’t a representative from my bank. I need to give you credit for your effort, but the call is ending now.”
 
The response I received was almost comedic. I was thanked for providing feedback and told to have a great day.
 
After hanging up, I called my bank’s main number, got in touch with my new loan officer, and reported the phone call. Even he agreed that the number I received the call from resembled other, legitimate, numbers used by the bank.

But What About the Phone Number?

I didn’t give much thought to the scam attempt after it took place, but it came back to the forefront of my mind earlier this week. The phone number the call came from was one I was able to call back, so the number wasn’t spoofed. The majority of numbers used for scams are spoofed, but this one was genuine, and the pattern looked very similar to other numbers I’ve called in the past.
 
This was on my mind for the better part of a day, and I needed answers. I turned to the folks at Telco Experts, with my questions. I’ve worked with their CEO securing lines for various employees over the past 15+ years, and knew his team would be able to provide me with some insight. Their COO, Adam Goldberg, provided me with exactly what I was looking for:
We are all targets, and the bad guys are smart. When a customer cancels a phone number, in this case your bank, the number goes in to an availability pool after 60 days. Anyone who is aware of these legacy numbers have the ability to order them like any other customer.
 
In most cases, the number is then transferred to an VoIP provider and can be used to place scam calls from anywhere in the world with Internet access.
Not only does this explain why the number was familiar, but also why I was able to return the call.
 
Well done, scammer. Well done.

How to Protect Yourself

Of course, knowing is half the battle. There are many steps that you can take to protect yourself from becoming the victim of a phone-based scam.

Never Say “Yes”

The FCC warned consumers in March about a new scam to get you to simply respond with the word “yes”.
In many cases, a caller (or recorded voice) will ask, “Can you hear me?” Don’t answer. I guarantee that it isn’t the guy from Verizon checking in on your service. Responding with “yes” allows the scammer to impersonate you, using your own voice to authorize fraudulent charges.
 
The FCC advises you to hang up immediately if you receive a call like this. If you have, and answered the question with “yes”, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on all financial statements for fraudulent activity.

Ask Questions

If you answer the phone and suspect that the caller has ill intentions, take control of the call. Ask questions to verify their legitimacy and confirm that you are speaking to a genuine representative. If you are uncomfortable, end the call.

Do Not Provide Personal Information

Never provide any personal information until you are fully satisfied with the information provided to you. Ask the caller to verify the full name of the company they are calling on behalf of, along with the service or product provided, along with their employee ID. If they hesitate to answer any of your questions, end the call.

Report Suspicious Calls

Do your part in combating scam calls by reporting them to the FCC. While this won’t instantly stop the incoming calls, it will help the FCC flag offenders and protect others from becoming victims. Submitting a complaint will immediately be followed with an email response containing a ticket number you can refer to if needed, and other helpful information.
It’s clear that scammers are becoming more sophisticated, and the advancement of technology is allowing them to do so at an alarming rate. While we’ve all become accustomed to the occasional IRS call demanding for payment of back taxes, there are more elaborate approaches being taken, so be vigilant; ask questions, don’t accomodate the caller until you are comfortable doing so, and remember that your privacy comes first.