- An unknown caller told me I was the victim of identity theft, which began a three-and-a-half hour call that fooled me into taking thousands of dollars out of my bank account to cooperate with a supposed federal investigation.
- Like most salesmanship, the scam worked best when I wanted to believe it. The callers tried a lot of different tactics, and I think the most effective persuaded me that this was just a mix-up and I wanted to help them clear it up.
- “Don’t trust your caller ID,” an FTC official told me later. “If you get a call out of the blue, you should feel completely comfortable in hanging up that call. … Never pay anyone, anywhere, using gift cards.”
- Phone scams are a booming business. By one estimate, nearly 45% of calls to cell phones this year are fraudulent, up from about 4% two years ago.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
The call came out of the blue, and within 10 minutes I’d been snagged.
“Your social security number is being investigated for identity theft,” a man, who said he was with the Social Security Administration, told me. He said if I didn’t cooperate I could face prosecution.
At first, I felt a little smug. Another man on the call told me a car had been rented by someone using my social security number near the border in Texas, but I haven’t been to Texas in years. Of course I’d assist the investigation.
Over the next three and a half hours, the caller would swindle thousands of dollars from my bank account using a mix of misery and threat, not unlike a bad buddy cop movie.
Like most salesmanship, the scam worked best when I wanted to believe it – that I was helping him catch “the bad guys,” as he’d said; that I had learned how US agents were secretly using an inconspicuous means of payment for confidential investigations. That and his approach — “look, we know it’s not likely you,” he told me at one point – worked to smother what should have been warning signs. I naturally just wanted to clear this up and help investigators in the process.
Phone scams are a booming business. By one estimate, nearly 45% of calls to cell phones this year are fraudulent, up from about 4% two years ago, according to a telecommunications firm that spoke to the AARP. In 2018, Americans reported being scammed of a total of $1.48 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission, but that is only based on people who reported this, which is likely to vastly understate the full size of the losses.
Fortunately, the ways to defeat phone scams are simple and straightforward.
“Don’t trust you caller ID,” said Will Maxson, assistant director in the division of marketing practices at the FTC. “If you get a call out of the blue, you should feel completely comfortable in hanging up that call. … Never pay anyone, anywhere, using gift cards.”
I walked through my experience with Maxson and another expert, who highlighted a host of warning signs I missed.
1. I was sitting at my desk at work when I received a call on my cell phone.
Your social security number is being investigated for identity theft. Do you want to cooperate with US law enforcement? If you don’t, you could face criminal prosecution. It typically costs $80,000 to hire a private lawyer in one of these cases. Do you want to cooperate?
The caller, from an 866 number, said he was with the Social Security Administration and referred to me as “Mr. Fellman.” He seemed to be a mix of busy and uninterested, and I passed him off as a Social Security staffer even if I did find the warning about paying $80,000 oddly specific and out of character.
“Of course I’ll cooperate,” I told him.
Red flag: Government institutions do not call members of the public like this. Social Security, for instance, contacts people through the mail.
“Social Security doesn’t call people,” Susan Grant, the director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, told Business Insider. “If your social security number has been stolen, you can notify the Social Security Administration and there are things they can do to flag your account but they don’t call people to tell them that their identity has been stolen or there’s some sort of problem.”
2. The call was transferred to a second man, who identified himself as an agent with Customs and Border Patrol.
I don’t normally do this, but I’ll tell you: Your social security number was used to rent a car. It was found in Laredo, Texas with a couple pounds of cocaine in the trunk.
I asked what this was all about, and he said I was apparently the victim of an identity theft and I needed to cooperate immediately. The man was hurried and had a slight Spanish accent – again, what I imagined an agent with CBP to sound like.
I swallowed hard.
Red flags: Customs and Border Protection, like the Social Security Administration, doesn’t contact members of the public to say they’re victims of identity theft.
One option is to demand the caller’s name and title, then hang up. Get on the official website of the government agency and contact them directly to try to confirm the agent’s name, title and that they’re trying to get in touch with you.
The other option is to just hang up, period.
3. I spent three and a half hours on the phone and the callers put me under constant time pressure.
You can mute the phone but at no time can you drop this call. If you drop this call, you could be subject to prosecution. You have an hour to help us.
Red flag: Time pressure is a crucial part of the scam and one of its biggest tells. They want you to give them money.
“The hallmark of this is that it gets you so anxious that you think you don’t have any time,” Grant said. “They’re telling you that you have to act immediately. So you get sort of panicked.”
4. I only told my boss about the call I’d gotten so I could step away from my desk to deal with this “identity theft.”
You can’t tell anyone about this call, as it could jeopardize the investigation. Anyone could be using your identity.
Red flag: For the next three and a half hours, I was only in touch with the two callers, who’d dial me back every time the call would drop. I didn’t tell my boss about the scope of what I was doing until it was over and I’d gone back to work.
“If you had called anybody, your state attorney general’s office or the Social Security Administration or Customs and Border Patrol, or gone online and looked around you would have found these red flags,” Grant said.
5. A simple Google search would have given me reason to pause.
This call may come up as a commercial line. We just use it to keep our investigation confidential.
The supposed CBP agent mentioned this as an aside, which I sort of explained away as, well, law enforcement probably uses lots of tactics to catch criminals.
I, of course, had missed a big red flag. Both the (866) toll-free number and an area code (202) number he used, from the Washington, DC area, would be very atypical for a border agent in Texas.
As my boss immediately discovered later, a simple Google search for the number came up as being an unsafe caller.
Even more sophisticated scams use spoofing to fool your caller ID.
“You can’t trust your caller ID,” said Will Maxson, assistant directorin the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission.
6. The caller stressed that I needed to get this money out of my bank and set up a new account immediately, so as not to interfere with their “investigation.”
You need to set up an alternate bank account. Go to an ATM and get money, then use it to buy a Google Play card. Purchase the $500 one.
“But why Google Play cards?” I asked.
“On the card it says, ‘apps, games, music, movies, books, and more,'” the caller replied.
“Hmmm,” I said, feeling a sudden “a-ha” sense that something as mundane as a gift card sold near at the pharmacy was also a hidden vehicle for US agents to fight crime.
Here again, I tripped over a red flag – one of the biggest.
“There’s no circumstances on the Earth in which anybody from a government agency would tell you to do that,” said Grant, the CFA expert.
Gift cards are anonymous and instantaneous. The purchase won’t necessarily be tied to an IP address, and there is a secondary market where scammers can sell authentic gift card numbers on the dark web. Maxson, the FTC official, said these murky areas are a focus of law enforcement.
“Never pay anyone anywhere using gift cards,” he said. “Gift cards are only used as a mechanism of payment by scammers.”
7. Time pressure had sent me on a fool’s errand.
I’ll give you 45 more minutes to get these Google Play cards. Do that and I’ll tell my supervisor that you’re cooperating with us.
Stores have a policy against selling more than $500 in Google Play cards at a time – to limit scams like the one I was ensnared in – and so fulfilling this “agent’s” demands meant walking around to pharmacies like Duane Reade and convenience stores like 7-11 and putting money on these at the check-out.
I’d already spent an hour doing this when he imposed a new time limit of another 45 minutes.
In addition to the red flags of time pressure – What really happens in 45 minutes? – I missed the fact the “agent” kept changing the time window without explanation.
8. After about two hours of walking around, my suspicions were flaring and I challenged the caller to show me show some form of proof.
There isn’t any paperwork I can send you because this is confidential. My name is Ricardo Sanchez of the CBP. I’m sorry but I can’t send you an email. We don’t know who’s using your identity.
Red flag: The caller had apparently lifted the name of a real US border agent, Ricardo Sanchez, in case I asked.
The best move at this point would have been to hang up and call CBP to see if any official by this name was trying to reach me.
“Don’t ever trust the identity of someone calling you directly,” Maxson told me.
9. Google Play cards were central to the scam.
Scratch off the backs of the cards, then send us a photo of them.
About three hours had passed. The caller was insistent that I needed to snap an image of the backs of the cards and text it to a phone number he gave me.
In my tiredness and aggravation, I missed the final red flag: Why would a border agent be so demanding about getting an image of gift cards?
I stacked all the cards and texted the image, and like that, the call was over.
Obviously, a Social Security staffer never got in touch with me.
I called the police instead.
Gift cards, explained Grant, are like “sending cash in an envelope to somebody. When you sent them the photographs of those gift cards, they had all the information that they needed to use them, sell them.”
More resources: Government agencies typically have information about ongoing phone scams and tips to foil them. You can typically find these on official websites, like these: