Protecting yourself

How I don’t fall victim to phone scammers

Susan Ladika

In the past couple of months I’ve gotten repeated phone messages from a company implying it wanted to serve me with legal papers; a debt collector looking for someone named Janice Leake; the “U.S. government” calling from a Kansas City area code; a number reportedly associated with a credit card rate reduction scam; a call from an area code that doesn’t exist; and several other numbers that I don’t know.

I don’t trust anybody anymore — at least not if they’re calling me from a phone number I don’t recognize.

When my landline or cellphone rings, the first thing I do is check caller ID. If it’s not someone I know, the call goes to voice mail. Given the proliferation of phone scams, it’s the only way I know to protect myself.

The Internet is no longer the contact method of choice for fraudsters. It’s the old-fashioned telephone.

Last year alone, consumers filed more than 1.5 million fraud complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Not everyone who filed a complaint reported the initial way the fraudsters made contact, but more than half who reported that information — or nearly 400,000 consumers — said their first contact with fraudsters came by telephone.

If that’s not enough to make you run in the other direction when the phone rings, my home state of Florida is tops in the nation in per capita fraud complaints to the FTC. Florida also leads the nation in identity theft complaints.

One of my most frequent callers is a fake Amy O’Neil at Accufile. It’s a robocall that alerts me to a “formal complaint” against me and leaves a callback number. On various online forums, consumers say they’ve called the number and been told they owe a debt from years ago and can either pay hundreds of dollars now or thousands of dollars later to settle the claim. Others are told law enforcement is heading their way to arrest them.

It all appears to be a fraudulent scheme to separate you from your hard-earned cash.

Then there’s the “U.S. government” call I received from a Kansas City number. It comes as I’m locked in a monthslong battle with the IRS, trying to get them to credit a tax payment to the proper year. The call came shortly after I’d sent correspondence to the IRS at a Kansas City post office box.

I briefly thought of answering the phone, but decided against it. The IRS says threatening phone calls from fraudsters pretending to be IRS agents is one of the main scams during tax season.

Fraudsters can tinker with caller ID so it looks like calls are coming from a government agency or actual business.

“The caller ID system, unfortunately, is almost completely broken,” says John Breyault, a vice president with the National Consumers League, which fields fraud and scam complaints through the website

The debt collector’s calls may be legit, but I’ve never heard of Janice Leake, and I’ve had this phone number for a decade. The message on my answering machine says to call a certain phone number if you want your number removed from their files. But experts warn consumers not to call back numbers they don’t know.

So how do you discern what calls are legit and which ones are from fraudsters?

“That’s the tricky part,” says Scott Florin, a Tampa, Florida, attorney who specializes in credit and debt issues. “There’s not a really good way to find out which ones are credible and which ones aren’t.”

Often these scam callers will pressure you to make a payment immediately by wire transfer or with a prepaid card. “Before you agree to make any type of payment, be sure to see something in writing,” Florin recommends.

Googling a number you don’t recognize can yield a wealth of information from other consumers if the call comes from a scammer.

Thanks to Google, I learned the call I received from an 844 area code was fake. That area code doesn’t even exist.

Breyault says some companies have services or apps that block robocalls for certain landlines or mobile phones. But those services could also block calls you actually want, such as one from your kid’s school telling you he’s sick.

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