The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 12, 2014

With robocall scams on the rise, the FTC fights back

By John Kelly
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I know I should just hang up. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. I’m the curious sort.

And so when I’m working from home, and the phone rings, and I answer, and I hear a recorded female voice tell me that if I want to reduce my credit card debt all I need to do is press 1, I sometimes press 1.

Then I’m connected to . . .

Well, I didn’t get the person’s name the first time. I simply asked the name of her company and she immediately hung up on me.

The second time it happened, the representative said her name was “Erica.” She said her firm would negotiate with my credit card companies and lower my interest rate to as little as zero percent. When I declined to give her my credit card number, she hung up.

Next to call me was “Katia Rodriguez.” But Katia, I asked, isn’t it a bad idea to give my credit card number to a stranger? No, she said. She didn’t want the 3-digit confirmation code, just the 16-digit number so she could check my credit.

“I don’t want to sit here and waste my time,” she said when I dithered.

“Katia,” I said. “This sounds like a scam.”

“This is not a scam,” she said, indignant. “That is not what we do. We don’t rip nobody off.”

Then Katia hung up.

Of course, they do rip nobody, er, everybody, off.

Bikram Bandy, coordinator of the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call program, said this particular ploy is called a credit card interest rate reduction scam. It’s known around the FTC as a “Rachel scam,” since the initial robocall often begins, “Hi, this is Rachel from cardholder services.” (Scammers can download the recording from the Internet as a .wav file.)

If I’d been gullible, I might have found my Visa or MasterCard being charged anywhere from $500 to $2,000. These “last-dollar frauds” prey on people who are in financial trouble, the exact sort of desperate people who can’t afford to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars. The FTC has seen an uptick in such scams since the recession that began in 2007.

It’s easy for scammers to get some cheap phone equipment, set up a boiler room and go to town. And the scams can be quite remunerative.

“I did one of these cases in the fall,” Bandy said. “We calculated that one boiler room had taken $9 million from consumers between 2007 and 2012.”

The scammers are also hard to catch. “Spoofing” phone numbers — making it look as if the call is coming from another phone number — is easy. Authorities can’t just do a reverse lookup for an address and knock on the door.

“The people who are charged with trying to stop scammers are charged with stopping other violations of the law,” said Karen Straughn, an assistant attorney general for the state of Maryland. “It’s just like saying people shouldn’t be allowed to speed. We all know the police have a lot on their plates. They can’t get everyone. That’s really what this is. You get some, but it’s hard to get all of them. The minute you get one, another pops up.”

The feds have been cracking down. In 2012, the FTC got restraining orders against five alleged scammers, and last summer it settled with the defendants, banning them from making robocalls and seizing assets from one.

Technology can help, too. A free service called Nomorobo (www.nomorobo.com) analyzes calls in real time, shunting actual calls to your line while consigning robocalls to oblivion. Bandy said the FTC is working with phone industry experts to improve anti-spoofing measures. (I’m amazed at the chutzpah of some of these charlatans. In December, a scammer was making calls that appeared to come from the Maryland attorney general’s own office.)

You can file a complaint at www.donotcall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222. What you shouldn’t do is press 1 — or any number. It just tells the scammer a real human is at that phone number.

It can be hard to resist, though.

“Sometimes if I’m bored, I will pick up the call and press 1 to talk to someone and pretend to be interested,” said Bandy from the FTC. “I’m mainly trying to find out information that allows me to figure out where they are. If we know where they are, there’s a better chance of figuring out who they are.”

Of course, he added, “If you start asking too many questions, they hang up.”

The FTC says “cardholder services” robocall scams are on the decline, but a new one is on the rise: Someone calls to say you’ve been approved to receive a medical alert device that has already been paid for.

Beware. As Maryland’s Straughn said: “The bottom line is you should never make a deal over the phone if you did not initiate the phone call.”

And here’s something I didn’t know: The credit card scams are obviously illegal, but so is the robocall itself. Unless you’ve given express written permission to a retailer to call you with a recorded message (and why would you?), they’re not allowed to call. At all.

Not that a law like that would stop a scammer.