I try to answer the buzz of my cell phone even if I don’t immediately recognize the caller’s number. And like a lot of people, I receive an inordinate number — sometimes multiple in a single day — of spammy, cold calls from fraudsters trying to trick me into parting with my money.
Usually, I curse my misfortune and hang up on them. But sometimes, I employ a different tactic and engage them in conversation or argument. Here to my best recollection, is how one recent late-morning call went down:
Caller: Hello. I’m calling from the Social Security Administration. We’ve sent you several letters, which you’ve failed to answer, and so I’m calling to let you know that there’s been suspicious activity on your account and you need to take immediate action.
Me: Excuse me. What did you say your name was?
Caller: I’m from the Social Security Administration. You need to take immediate action, otherwise you may be arrested for fraud.
Me: I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re really from the Social Security Administration.
Caller: What? You don’t believe me? Why don’t you believe me? I’m from the U.S. Social Security Administration. What makes you say that I’m not?
Me: No, you’re not from the Social Security Administration. I know better than that, because the Social Security Administration doesn’t call people up out of the blue like this.
Caller: Yes, we do. I’m from the Social Security Administration. I can’t believe you don’t believe me. If you don’t follow my instructions immediately, you will be arrested and put in jail. We will send the police to come to your house and arrest you for fraud and nonpayment of taxes and —
Me: Wait a minute, sir. Don’t threaten me. I know you’re not from the government and you know that I know you’re not from Social Security. What I want to know is how you got my phone number?
Caller: The government has all phone numbers. We have your driver’s license and other information about you. You’re putting yourself at great risk. I’ve already said that we sent you letters which you didn’t answer —
Me: Oh, yeah. You did say that. What address did you send the letters to?
Caller: [pauses] Uh…Um.. I have it here. . . [Hangs up]
Typically, the back-and-forth with spammers doesn’t go as far as this one. After all, time is money to the vultures lurking in a sweatshop somewhere, dialing for dollars to pick off unsuspecting prey.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people being filched by these unscrupulous scammers, according to officials with the Federal Trade Commission, who track and prosecute telephone fraud.
Figures posted on the FTC website show that people filed over 76,000 reports about Social Security imposters in the 12 months ending last April, accounting for reported losses of $19 million. About 36,000 reports and $6.7 million in reported losses were in the previous two months alone, the FTC said.
The phone companies are also alarmed by the scammers. Some of the nation’s largest mobile and broadband communications firms announced an agreement on Thursday to embrace a shared standard for call-blocking technology, in a coordinated effort to stanch the flood of telephonic spam and robocalls.
In an agreement with 51 state attorneys general, a dozen companies said they would voluntarily implement the use of industry-approved screening devices to block fraudulent callers before they reach consumers’ phones, and would assist law enforcement in identifying unscrupulous scammers.
According to The New York Times, T-Mobile was the first of the big companies to install the technology, adding the program in January to some of its phones. The newspaper said Verizon has also started its own call authentication program, and that AT&T is cooperating with T-Mobile and Comcast to to screen out spam calls across their networks. The telephone firms that signed the agreement include: Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Consolidated Communications, Frontier Communications, U.S. Cellular, and Windstream Services.
This is welcome news and may lead to a reduction in the number of spam calls that all of us get. For sure, it won’t eliminate the problem, because scammers are tenacious and indiscriminate offenders. They aren’t likely to give up easily: They are hell-bent on targeting all age groups, incomes, and demographic segments of the population.
And they do so at shockingly similar rates. Of the people who reported interactions with Social Security scammers, just 3.4% of them actually lost money.
But when the scammers make a hit, they tend to score big: The median individual reported loss was $1,500, which is about four times higher than the median individual loss for all fraud tracked by the FTC.
Will Maxson, assistant director in the FTC’s division of marketing practices, told me that the Social Security telephone routine has recently replaced a similar scam that had callers pretending to be with the Internal Revenue Service.
From October 1, 2015, to September 30, 2016, about 140,000 reports of IRS imposter scams were filed with the FTC, collectively indicating $17 million in consumer losses.
“It’s certainly possible that those scammers that were using the IRS scam tactics have migrated to the Social Security scam,” he said, noting that many of the calls originate overseas, most often from India.
Sometimes there’s not a human on the call: Instead, a robotic voice intones a warning to call the government to clear their records, provide personal information or purchase a product to resolve a dispute with the Social Security Administration or some other government agency. Here’s a sample of such a call: ssa_robocall.mp3
Maxson pointed me to the set of tips that the FTC uses to encourage people to guard against scammers and robot callers pretending to be government officials:
- Do not trust caller ID. Scam calls may show up on caller ID as the Social Security Administration and look like the agency’s real number.
- Don’t give the caller your Social Security number or other personal information. If you already did, visit IdentityTheft.gov/SSA to find out what steps you can take to protect your credit and your identity.
- Check with the real Social Security Administration. The SSA will not contact you out of the blue. But you can call it directly at 1-800-772-1213 to find out if the SSA is really trying to reach you and why.
- Talk about it. People recognize the IRS scam, but many are getting caught off guard by these new imposters. You can help by telling people that the SSA scam is a new version of the IRS scam.
- Report government imposter scams to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.
FTC officials don’t encourage citizen engagement with people posing as government officials, as I did with the spammer who called me.
“Doing that wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Mitch Katz, another spokesman at the FTC, told me. “It might even encourage them to call back because he’ll know he has a live person with a real phone number.”
Katz said the better course of action is to jot down the number on your caller ID and report it to the FTC. “We have ways of tracking them down,” he said.
Ah, yes. That’s wise advice. But to tell the truth, I enjoyed arguing with that Social Security imposter. I felt as if I’d effectively turned the tables on him and wasted his time.
Better yet, I’d like to think that I stalled him long enough to spare some other, unfortunate mark from having to confront his shady enterprise.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Will Maxson’s last name.