Fraud Watch: Don't trust your caller ID

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The phone rings and like most Americans, you answer. A quick glance at caller ID reveals that the call is coming from a local number (same area code and three-digit prefix). When you pick up the phone there is a brief silence after which the caller speaks or you hear a pre-recorded message. Prepare for the sales pitch!

The call you received was most likely generated by a computerized, voice- over-internet, auto-dialer - a Robocall, one of the favorite tools of telemarketers and con artists. They are efficient and inexpensive to use. A robocall system can reach hundreds of potential clients (or scam targets) in far less time than a human caller. The technology can determine whether a "real" person or an answering machine picks up on a call. Ever notice that the number of incoming calls on your answering machine differs from the number of messages left on the machine. The likely reason is that the robocaller "sensed" the answering machine and disconnected the call.

Determining the source and intentions of the "caller" is often difficult, if not impossible. Many legitimate businesses including credit card companies, travel consolidators, and insurance agents use robocalls in promoting sales or services. Charities, non-profits, and politicians frequently also use robocalls to raise money or promote policies or candidates. Scammers and con artists use the same approach for the same reasons as the legitimate; the ease and economy of the practice. One example of a classic scam recently came on my phone. The call came from a "local" number and had the telltale pause when I answered. The caller asked for me by name. When I asked him to identify himself, he did so and also told me the name of his company. He was calling to GIVE me a FREE brace to alleviate back pain. I told him I had none but my right knee ached; he said don't worry, we handle knee braces as well. He identified my primary care physician and asked me to give him my Medicare number. FLASHING RED LIGHTS!! I continued talking and asked him for his EIN (tax) number and his registration number to do business in Vermont. The call ended abruptly.

The scenario described above is repeated in a variety of forms thousands of times every day. Self-defense is your best tool. Use an answering machine on your home phone or voice mail on a cellular phone. Do not pick up the receiver or answer calls from unknown numbers. Record calls from numbers you do not recognize. If the caller really wants to leave a message, he or she will. Do not rely on caller ID. In the situation described above, the caller ID displayed the toll-free number for Medicare using a practice called spoofing where a computer replaces the actual number of the caller. Register for the National Do Not Call program at www.donotcall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222. And YES, this does work - sort of? Telemarketing calls from legitimate businesses are prohibited, with the exception of those with which you do business. Failure to comply results in per-incident fines. Do Not Call does not stop political calls, charitable calls, debt collection calls, informational calls, and telephone survey calls (thank you Congress). Also, Do Not Call does not stop scammers. They already ignore the law and most of their calls are untraceable.

It is critical to note that the state and federal governments do not use phone calls to conduct secure business matters or to threaten. If you pick up the phone and the caller self-identifies as a government official, ask for the name of the department and office location, then state that you will call back using a number you know to be correct. Report the incident to the government agency involved. Do not use any number provided by the caller. The same advice holds for calls from businesses including banks and credit card companies. If a caller asks for personal or account information, it is likely a scam. Contact the business identified by the caller using a phone number you know is correct for verification of any issues and to report the scam.

Have questions and need assistance? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org or the AARP National Fraud Watch Network helpline at 877-908-3360.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

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