I delete every email that has even a hint of being a scam, but somehow one got past me and I opened it. It was sent by someone who identified himself as a money manager who had a client with the same last name as mine. He said the client, who had an account valued at nearly $8 million, recently passed away and left no heirs. The sender offered to share the detailed information he had about his client so I would be able to pass myself off as a relative and then claim the money as an inheritance; afterward, the money manager and I would split the money. The email was exceptionally well written.
I showed the email to my wife, who said it was a scam; I thought it was a sting. In any case, following up on this fraud, either in a moment of weakness or as a result of letting one’s guard down, would be a serious crime and almost certainly would have life-changing consequences. Unfortunately, there are bad people out there and the threat from them is real. It’s impossible to be too careful.
Answering “Yes” to these questions or saying “I agree”
in this scam will open up a Pandora’s box of troubles
Many harmless-looking emails are really scams – for example, those informing us that we’ve won a contest, updating us about products we’ve never ordered, special deals available simply by filling out a form, or an urgent alert that our email account is about to be shut down. Another email making the rounds is one that appears to be from the person’s bank, asking the account-holder to verify/slash information.
Just opening an email like this could also open the door to a computer-destroying virus, a hack attack, or some other fiendish plot. And these schemes are not limited to computers; cell phones are also used to rip people off, and the scams and schemes using them abound and are both creative and clever.
‘Can You Hear Me?’
In one such scam, a call comes in from a telephone number with the same area code and exchange you have. You look at the phone number and answer the call, thinking it must be from someone in your neighborhood and probably from a friend or acquaintance. But it’s not!
The caller asks in a very friendly voice, “Is this Mr. Schwartz?” or “Can you hear me?” Or he may ask, “Would you agree that the weather is beautiful today?” Answering “Yes” to these questions or saying “I agree” in this scam will open up a Pandora’s box of troubles.
Why? Because the scammer is recording the conversation and will use an edited version of it to make bogus but very large charges to Mr. Schwartz’s phone bill. For example, Mr. Schwartz may be billed for calls to “love” lines that charge astronomical rates, or be charged for merchandise he never ordered, the bill tacked onto his phone line. The scammer has edited the phone call and used Mr. Schwartz’s “yes” or “I agree” response to accept the high fees involved. And any challenge Mr. Schwartz makes to these fees will be quickly dismissed because there is proof that he was aware of those charges and verbally agreed to pay them.
What should Mr. Schwartz or anyone else do when a call like this comes in? Hang up immediately without saying anything. Just in case the call was legit, the caller will find another way to establish contact with him.
*72 is one of many “*” (star) codes that can be entered on a cell phone or a landline to perform different functions; *72 activates call forwarding. This means by entering *72 followed by a phone number, all calls to your number will be forwarded to the phone number you entered.
Scammers call and may say they are calling from a hospital and a doctor wants to speak with you. Pressing *72 and dialing a number they give you will let you call the doctor directly. Of course, once you do that all calls coming to your number will be forwarded to the one you entered. The scammer gives your number to someone who calls him collect from long distance; they will have a lengthy and enjoyable conversation – and you will foot the bill. There are variations of this scam, such as one where the caller says he’s calling from jail, dialed a wrong number and is allowed only one phone call; can you please forward this message to his wife or lawyer.
The Computer Expert
You get a call from someone who identifies him/herself as a technician at Microsoft, says your computer has been sending numerous “error” messages, and offers to help you fix it. All you have to do is download a program or a patch from a website the technician gives you. Of course, the program will have a virus and it will either destroy your computer, take control of it, and/or use the information to steal your money.
Some months ago I got a recorded message on my landline telling me about a new computer repair shop in my neighborhood. As my computer was working just fine I hung up, but minutes later it stopped working. While I couldn’t be certain the call and broken computer were connected, it seemed like a stretch to say it was just a coincidence, and I found the experience spooky.
A caller says he’s from the IRS, gives a badge number, and in a very stern tone says, “You owe several thousand dollars on your tax return made in 20XX and if it’s not paid immediately, marshals will be at your home in 45 minutes and arrest you.” The caller has your address and sometimes additional information about you, adding credibility to the demand that payment must be made immediately.
In fact, the IRS corresponds by mail. But that’s besides the point, because most people who get a call like this are too shocked to think straight. And even though they don’t owe any back taxes, they are so rattled by this call that all they can think of is how to raise money fast and pay the bill as quickly as possible.
It’s a very cruel scam but an effective one, and the proof is that it has persisted for years. I know someone who has been around the block a few times, someone who is very shrewd, and after being threatened in such a call was trembling.
Friday Afternoon Scam
When Friday afternoon finally rolls around, most of us are thinking about doing some last-minute shopping, going away for the weekend, or making Shabbos plans to unwind from the workweek. Scammers see this as an opportunity to rip them off. The scammer will call someone and say that his/her debit card is being deactivated and will ask for specific financial information to help resolve the problem. Obviously, scammers know exactly what to do with this information once they get hold of it.
Someone who gets a call like this should hang up, get the bank’s telephone number from a reliable source, and find out what’s going on from a bank representative. Never call the bank using a number the caller provided.
The Bottom Line
Most of us focus our attention on the needs of our families and ourselves. It’s easy to become oblivious to the fact that bad guys are targeting us, planning novel ways to cheat us, and they are very skilled at what they do. They may call with a promise of lowering the interest on a credit card, offer a free vacation, or promise a better deal on a mortgage.
And they’ll say in order to process these deals all they need is a birthday, social security number, or credit card information. Giving them this information could end up costing you thousands of dollars in fees or make you the victim of identity theft.
These days, fraudsters know how to doctor an email or phone call to make it look like it’s legitimate and coming in from Microsoft, the IRS, your bank, or another reputable source. NASDAQ reports that nearly two-thirds of phone scams involve the caller pretending to be a representative of a government agency or financial institution.
Scammers use other tricks, too. For example, in one particularly wicked scheme they will call someone, say that a child or spouse has been kidnapped, and play recorded sounds of desperate shouting in the background to make the call sound more urgent. Of course, the recipient of a call like this is more than willing to pay any amount of money demanded to free their loved one.
It sounds crazy, but there really are people out there who target us and stay up nights figuring out ways to separate us from our money. It is our responsibility to do whatever possible to make their schemes fail.
Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org