I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to recognizing phone scams.
Like many of us, I rarely answer my phone when it’s an unidentified caller. If we venture to answer, most of us hang up when we hear a pre-recorded message about our auto-insurance or an unspecific alert about a credit card activity. If it’s a real person, our skepticism goes up a few levels when there’s a bad connection or the person is hard to understand.
But that’s not what phone scams always sound like any longer. They can be clear, eloquent, and the scammers calling us can be working off a script—the same way real businesses and telemarketers do. I knew these scams were out there, but I never truly related to how far phone scams have come until I found myself on the phone with a modern-day scammer.
Getting on the phone on behalf of my dad
I was visiting home when I could hear my father raising his voice in his office. It’s not unusual for him to speak up on the phone, but he was audibly getting irritated. He was saying something about how he didn’t understand, and he was sure he had paid his internet bill.
In my family, I am the de facto IT support, so I went into the room with him to see if I could help. He was visibly upset and losing patience. When he saw me, he stopped talking and held out his phone.
“Can you figure this out for me, please? It’s the internet company and they say my payment didn’t go through.”
I took the phone and sat in the chair at the side of his desk. This is what happened next.
The scammer’s tactics, play-by-play
“Hi, can I ask whom I’m speaking with?” I said politely (I’m default nice to telemarketers).
“Hello, this is Alice from [Internet Company]. I’m calling because the last scheduled payment for this account was not processed due to a problem with the card we have on file,” said the voice.
It was, in fact, my father’s internet service provider. The script was precise and straightforward. Alice’s tone was calm and helpful, the line was clear, and their accent was right out of middle America. The call was no different than any other good phone support representative I’ve ever spoken to. Short of not having seen the Caller ID on my father’s phone, I had no reason to suspect anything.
I looked at my dad, wondering if his credit card had expired. But still, I have some rules about talking on the phone when I didn’t make the call myself.
“Thanks, Alice. Can you tell me the account name and number?” I said, figuring this would give me the answer I was looking for.
“Of course,” they said as I could hear the sound of typing. “This is for Mr. [my father’s last name], and the account ending in [****].”
Alice had my father’s last name, a positive sign. I didn’t know my father’s account information, but the digits they quoted were the last four digits of his phone number. I figured, for the moment, that his internet company might use the home phone as the account number.
I put Alice on mute.
“Dad, do you have your last bill?” I said, pointing at his computer.
He opened the file cabinet next to his desk and started going through the folders. Cos yeah, that’s my dad, and I love him.
I went back to Alice.
“Can you tell me when the charge failed and the past-due amount?” I asked.
“Yes. The amount due on March 18th was $184.50. That wasn’t processed, but if you can make a payment today, we can fix it and avoid a late fee of $15,” they said.
Knowing in retrospect that this was a scam, this was a great line, and really reveals how phone scammers have been doing research to increase their success rate at stealing money and bank information.
First, the scammer’s script is precisely the right combination of helpfulness mixed with a gentle threat (act now, or you will lose). Second, there were details. The amount past due was about right for my dad’s internet/phone/tv service, and they gave a specific date for when the bill was due. Third, Alice didn’t push me to give them a credit card number (yet).
Across from me, I could see my dad was starting to pull a sheet of paper from one of the folders.
“Thanks for that, Alice. Can we take care of this on your website?” I asked.
“You can,” Alice answered, “But just so you know, if you pay online, there might be a late fee if the payment doesn’t post before the end of the day. If you want, I can update the credit card information with you now and that will for sure avoid the extra charge.”
Alice is really looking out for us. And what they said about taking care of it online was true. But, as they said, a safer alternative was to just give them my father’s information.
My father turned from the filing cabinet and handed me the last bill. It showed the account balance as paid on March 31st. Further, the monthly total didn't match the amount Alice had quoted.
I looked at the top of the bill and realized my dad’s account number was not the same as his phone number. I assumed wrong.
“Alice, could you tell me again the account number and the street address you have on file?” I asked.
The line went dead.
Some helpful tips about what info you share on the phone
Looking at the phone, I finally saw that the caller’s number was UNIDENTIFIED. If I had only looked at that from the start, none of the above conversation would have ever taken place. Not answering unidentified calls was just one of the things my dad and I talked about next:
- Legitimate businesses have Caller ID
Even those companies who can afford call centers use caller ID to establish their legitimacy. Maintain deep skepticism any time your phone rings and the ID is blocked, unidentified, or labeled “potential spam”.
- Never give your personal information out on a call you didn’t make
When someone calls you, it’s a good practice to avoid ever giving out or confirming any personal information. In the case above, the scammer got disturbingly far with only my father’s name and telephone number.
- Go to the website yourself
If it’s a bill to pay or a deal to be had, go to the service’s website yourself or find the customer service number on the last bill. When you do business through a legitimate secure website, or when you call a service number you see printed on a bill, you can be more trusting about what personal information you share.
- Keep on top of your records
I never would have given out my dad’s credit card on that call, but I was prepared to go online to fix it (were it actually broken). But, this got drawn out because my dad has a (sometimes) dumb adult child. He knew something was wrong before I ever went into the room—because he checks his bills and his credit cards every month.
Phone scams are growing more sophisticated, and raising your healthy sense of skepticism is never a bad idea. Even then, some scams may succeed. The best line of defense is to be sure you’re using services that help protect your identity and monitor your credit, should a bad actor ever succeed in getting your information.
In the meantime, keep the tips above in mind and share them with your family. Practice a high degree of safety with your identity…and maybe trust more when your dad says he paid his bill.