Tech Tip: How To Spot a Phone Scam

Phone Scam

Hello French Fries!

I’ve gotten multiple calls in the past couple days over the phone from scammers. If I’m getting these calls, many of you probably are as well. So I will detail the specific scam call I’m getting, and then tell you how I have determined it’s a scam, and how to protect yourself from such scams.

thievesToday alone I’ve received 3 calls from different 202 (Washington DC) phone numbers which left the same voicemail that was a half cut off (at the beginning) robotic Microsoft Sam voice saying ‘This is the IRS and we have determined that you owe us money and are hiding from Federal Government. This needs to be rectified immediately so you are urgently commanded to return this call as soon as you receive the message. Number is …. I repeat number is … thank you’. They called again a 4th time, so I picked up, and some man with an Indian/Pakistani accent said his name was Officer James O’Brien badge number 287 with the FBI’s IRS enforcement division and if I didn’t pay 8400 dollars over the phone with my debit card or checking account right then and there he was going to have my local sheriff’s department arrest me within the next hour.

Firstly, not to be racist or ethnocentric, but I will be highly and unexpectedly surprised if there was ever a man name James O’Brien who was born in south Asia or had a south Asian accent… that just does not compute on all ethnic and demographic levels and is an obvious red line. I mean, seriously?!

Secondly, the IRS will not call you if they think you owe them money, much less demand payment on the spot under threat of arrest. If you have any interaction and/or transaction with the federal government of any kind, have an attorney present. It is your constitutional right, and if you are being threatened with arrest by someone calling you unsolicited claiming to be from the government, and you tell them you won’t speak with them unless your attorney is present and then hang up, you are legally protected.

Fighting fraudThirdly, scammers will very often try to induce you to act at their behest with some sort of threat in order to strong arm you into submission. The threat of arrest is scary for most law abiding citizens such as myself, who’s only interaction with a prison was being led through there by my mother the prosecutor when I was 14 years old as her way of scaring me into never finding myself there for real. Quite effective. The local sheriff is not responsible to the federal government, and due to jurisdiction and federalization, they do not act on behalf of the federal government, but of the local county government. The federal government has it’s own police force. It’s called the FBI, and they would make arrests through the FBI, or in the case of the IRS, through their own IRS Enforcement Agency. Furthermore, the IRS does not as a general rule criminal charge and arrest people for accounting errors, they try to work with those who owe them money, not against them. The IRS is severely understaffed and under tight budget constraints, so they generally reserve criminal proceedings for those who are intentionally fraudulent with their taxes in the process of an illicit act. This is an example of a scammer trying to scare his victims into acting.

Fourthly, scammers will try to get any personal or sensitive information they can off of you. If a federal agent is demanding information from you, you are not legally obligated to provide it without him or her presenting a warrant to you in person, nor are they able to get information from you if you request an attorney and he or she does not let you communicate through or with your attorney being present. If they violate your constitutional rights, their case goes right out the window because no judge would let such blatant disregard for constitutionally protected rights stand. DO NOT DIVULGE ANY PERSONAL OR SENSITIVE INFORMATION TO ANYONE OVER THE PHONE! If they are truly a professional law enforcement agent, they will not want to jeopardize their case by violating your rights, and they would be trained to that regard. Also, do not say the word ‘yes’. Often times they might have already stolen some of your private information, such as bank accounts or credit card statements, etc. and they are looking to get a recording of your voice saying ‘Yes’ to authorize a transaction. Do not answer any question they have with the word yes. At worse, answer their questions with another question, like ‘Why do you need this information?’. At best, just hang the heck up on them.

cybercrime.jpgScammers are getting more technologically savvy. I am not going to say they are smart or intelligent, because if they were, they’d be able to get a real job instead of being lowlife thieving scum. However, as is the case with my past 24 hours worth of experience, they do have some technological expertise to help them slip through your skepticism. They know how to spoof phone numbers. Spoofing is masking your caller ID with another number. Depending on the intent of the person spoofing their phone, it’s either a legal grey area, or downright illegal. This used to be trickier several years ago, however a joke shop developed an app called SpoofCard in 2011 with the intent of allowing people to spoof their numbers as practical jokes to mess with their friends. Scammers have caught on and have made great use of SpoofCard. The four calls I received today all came from the 202 area code, which is Washington, DC, the seat of the federal government. The fact that it was the same message from 4 different numbers tells me that someone is spoofing the numbers.

scammerHow can you protect yourself from these scams and prevent yourself from being duped? First and foremost: common sense! My intuition told me that a man named James O’Brien would not have an Indian accent, and consequently, I already knew that he was a scammer the moment he said ‘Hi, this is Officer James O’Brien’. You can take proactive steps to protect yourself. If you have not done so, register your phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry. This registry is maintained under federal law by the FCC, and anyone can register their phone number on it in a process that is quite simple and painless. Real marketers, companies and organizations cannot call you if you are registered on the Do Not Call Registry under severe financial and criminal penalty if they do not comply, and this ensures that you will not receive calls from real marketers, charities, salespersons etc. Once registered, if you do not recognize the number of someone calling you, do not pick up. If it’s important, they will leave a voicemail. Most scammers will not be bothered, they’ll just move on to their next target. More often than not, those who do leave a voicemail use a dictation program so that their own voices cannot be identified by the authorities. If you do receive a call, and it’s somebody you do not know demanding money/assets owed, financial compensation to thwart off some sort of threat, or trying to sale you something that seems to good to be true, Hang Up! If it’s that important, they’ll call you back. In the meantime, do what I do, and research the call.

larcenyIf you are getting a call from someone you suspect to be a scammer, then so are many other people, and people share things like this on the internet. Search the number, search the topic of discussion in Google, chances are you will find documentation warning you it’s a scam confirming your skepticism. In my case, since I work in Cyber Security and am well trained to quickly identify a scam, I saw right through the perpetrator. I told this so-called Officer James O’Brien “By all means, please send the Sheriff’s deputies. It will save me the time and hassle of calling them up and reporting you for trying to con me out of $4800, and since you are demanding more that $1000, you are in Grand Larceny territory rather than Petty Theft, which means you are actively engaging in a much more serious felony at the moment. So please, provide me your real name, date of birth, social security number and address so I can properly identify you to the appropriate authorities?” At this point he called me something much to crass to repeat on a family-friendly blog and hung up.

Folks, it’s almost tax season, and ne’er-do-wells always come out of the woodwork this time of year to take advantage of unsuspecting victims. Please be vigilant, and safe with your data. If you are a scammer reading my blog, c’mon man! Be better than that, crime doesn’t pay. Until next time…

…the ketchup is in the sauce.

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