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A Case of Fraud Over the Phone

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You think it'll never happen to you, or that if it does, you'll totally be sharp enough to see the fraudsters coming.  Just last night, a friend of mine got a phone call from a restricted number saying that it was Verizon Wireless calling to inform her that she had to pay them $3.18 in the next hour for some new online billpay fee policy, or face late charges.  What would you do?

They argued about it over the phone for a good 15-20 minutes, my friend stating how she never received notice of this charge and should not have to pay it, especially with an hour time limit at 6pm on a Friday night.  What if she couldn't make it to a store to pay the fee in that amount of time?  Of course, they offered the convenience of accepting payment over the phone.  She insisted on speaking to the supervisor, which of course was right there, and only the supervisor could accept the payment details anyway.  This was starting to smell fishy already.

Payment info was relayed.  Then they asked for her name, address, and date of birth.  The first two items may be asked for sometimes simply to make sure they match the credit card info being used to process payment.  Date of birth was a bit odd to me, at which point I said, "They should have this info already, and if they ask for your Social Security number, say no."  I couldn't hear the entire conversation, so while I was suspicious, no one thing stood out as being overtly fraudulent.  In hindsight, this would have been a great time to hang up and call Verizon's customer service line directly to confirm (*611).

The deed done, it wasn't sitting right with us, but she wasn't worried.  Out of general "Better safe than sorry" philosophy, I suggested we run up to the local Verizon store and check out the story.  So we did.  Turns out they do not charge any fees ever for online billpay, and in fact they encourage people to use it because it's convenient and free.  Uh oh.

My friend then called the Verizon customer service line directly to see if they had any additional info.  All they could do was confirm that it was not them who called, and there were no outstanding fees on her account.  Double uh oh.

We spent the rest of the night calling up the bank (learned that a $500+ charge was applied to her account only moments after the initial call ended), Western Union (who thankfully didn't complete the transaction because the person making it did not have full and proper identification), and then the police to file the full report on the incident.  In the end, it looks like no money will be transacted and all will go back to normal, but you really never know when your phone might ring with criminals on the other end of the line. 

The pitch was well planned and delivered calmly despite the anger and frustration being lobbed back at them regarding the terms of the payment.  Even after hearing that it wasn't a legitimate charge, my friend wasn't sure she should cancel her card right away, thinking she should give it till morning to see what happens.  This, to me, sounded like disbelief that it could happen to her, or an unwillingness to see that she got duped and made a mistake in anger.  Hey, it happens.

We won't know for sure till early next week whether she's free and clear of this incident, but everyone involved has assured us it should work out fine.  Here are some things that, in retrospect, should have added up to be red flags.

Lack of Information
They did not ask for my friend by name when she answered.  They only asked if she was the primary account holder for the phone.  She was, so she went along with it.  They did end up asking for her name, address, and DOB.  They should have this on file, and you should ask them to read it to YOU (don't volunteer anything if you don't really know who it is), not the other way around.  Odds are, they don't have it and will be caught in their bluff.

This works both ways, though.  Not only do they not have your information, but they'll likely be unwilling to provide much information about themselves.  For example, the call ID was restricted.  They obviously didn't want us calling them back or having a number to give the police to look into.  Verizon confirmed that calls from their company should always show up as some number, even though you may not recognize it every time.  In any case, the real company should have no problem with you asking to call them back at the actual number.  Fraudsters will discourage this.

They told her she had one hour to pay.  This presses the caller into making a snap decision, especially with our busy lives.  What are the odds you can drop everything right now and find and visit a store to make a payment?  Given the unexpected nature of the call, fear of late fees, and time constraint, you're likely to agree to anything.  Verizon said they would never do this, either, especially for such a small amount if you have good payment history.

The details of this new "policy" surrounding the fee were vague and confusing.  Something like it had only been in effect for the last three months, and she should have been notified about it, but it couldn't actually appear on a statement until next year, as this was to be an annual fee.  Further, charging a fee for online bill payments is contradictory to the whole idea of them (save a stamp, save time, save, save, save).  Sort of the opposite of the "Too good to be true" rule, if they can't make it make sense, it probably doesn't, and you should walk away.

Now that you're at wits end, they swoop in to save the day, offering to let you pay over the phone.  They'll ask for identifying information (which may be used to commit other identity crimes later on), and payment info.  This is where it's crucial to know to whom exactly you're speaking.  When in doubt, hang up and call back.  Don't worry about their artificial time limit.

Security and Reassurance
It was cheap.  That in and of itself isn't bad, but that will make you dismissive of it, and it worked in this case.  Just because they say they're going to charge you $3 doesn't mean they can't just turn around and charge you thousands after you hang up.  The caller did offer to let us pay at a store, but again, this only really works to reassure you that you're actually talking to a rep from the company.  If you call their bluff and opt to go to the store, they may try to convince you to make the payment now since it's easier, or just give up and call the next potential victim.  Either way, they don't lose.

In the end, if something like this happens to you, don't sit around waiting and seeing what happens.  Take action, cancel credit/debit cards, and notify the authorities.  They may not always be able to take action against the wrongdoers, but they can at the very least help ensure nothing happens to you.

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About Mark Buckingham

  • Laura

    Nice article. I guess it’s one of those “live and learn” situations that one must experience to actually know things like this can REALLY happen to you. I’m glad to hear your friend was able to work things out early, and that the thieves weren’t as smart as they thought they were by not getting everything they needed in the first place.

  • Very helpful, Mark, thank you.

    I think it’s fair to say, as a general rule, that legitimate businesses you deal with will never call you to ask for telephone payment. You may get a written request for payment and therein provided with an option to by by phone or online, but just getting a call asking for money should be a tip-off that something’s not kosher.

    I want to add that if you’re elderly or have loved ones in your life who are, they are easy, frequent prey for phone fraud. My 95-year-old friend and neighbor gets such calls constantly, and because she has dementia, she sometimes agrees to these requests. Another friend who acts as her business manager and has her legal power-of-attorney had to do battle with some creep outfit that yanked $95.00 out of her account for garbage bags (!). On another occasion, I was with her one evening when she got a call from someone who was trying to sell her something. When I heard her say “That’s a lot of money and I’m not working right now,” I grabbed the phone, quickly asked her if this was someone she knew (she nodded “no”) and I said into the phone: “Hey, sleazeball, you’re talking to a 95 year old woman; get lost!” and hung up. So watch out on behalf of the oldsters in your life.

    Also beware of online fraud. I got snagged by a computer help-line one night when I was having problems. Desperate, I searched online for assistance and found a site that said an expert would call me and provide help for only $9.99 and, although they asked for my account information up-front, they assured me my account would not be charged until I got the call and let them know the problem had been solved.

    Needless to say, I never got a call and my account was charged the $9.99. Fearing they would dip in for more, I went through a tedious process with my bank. I had to change my debit card number and the bank credited me the $9.99. But can you imagine the tons of moo-la this company gets from tens of thousands of people who don’t bother to challenge a ten buck rip-off?

    New technology has brought us new high-tech dangers. Take heed!