Robo-call scammers try all sorts of things to separate you from your money

John Kelly
Columnist January 14

If the telephone had been around in 14th-century Florence, Dante would have invented a special place in hell for telephone scammers: up to their necks in a lake of excrement, say, or an eternity spent having their toenails removed by pliers-wielding demons. Such are the fitting punishments for the crooks I wrote about in Monday’s column.

Many readers got in touch with me, sharing their annoyances. There are the scams about credit card interest rate reductions that I wrote about and the scam about medical alert equipment. (Speaking of which, on Monday, the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida attorney general’s office announced that they had persuaded a U.S. District Court to freeze the assets of an Orlando company that pitched purportedly “free” LifeWatch medical devices.)

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

There are also people who call to tell you that your car warranty has expired and want to sell you a new one. These pitches often come in the mail, too, frequently made to appear as if they’re from an automaker. Don’t fall for them.

And don’t fall for the scammers who call claiming to be from Microsoft or some other computer company and want you to log on to your PC and give them information.

A District reader named Peg said that a heavily accented man called her house claiming to be from “the Law Enforcement Organization.” He said Peg’s husband was being investigated and needed to phone the number he provided at his earliest convenience. She played along and took down the numbers, which turned out to be “spoofed,” that is, altered so they appeared to come from a different number.

Peg thinks her husband was picked because, though American, he has a “foreign-sounding” name. “With so many foreign-born residents in our region, I worry that the fear of breaking a law might lead them to believe these scammers,” she wrote.

Stu from Baltimore thinks the scammers are despicable for targeting older Americans. “My father-in-law, who is 91, doesn’t understand why people don’t take advantage of these wonderful offers, despite our trying to explain to him why they pose a risk,” he wrote.

Ann, a reader from Fairfax, admits to being “slightly sadistic.” She sometimes strings the scammers along.

“It all started when I had two kids home from school and I was standing in front of the stove making bechamel sauce,” she wrote. “You know how boring it can get making a roux for 20 minutes?”

When a robo-caller rang to get her to commit to a medical alert system, Ann put on her “old lady voice” and spent the time drawing out the scammer, asking about her family, her dinner plans and more.

“You seem like such a nice young lady,” Ann said. “Why don’t you get a job where you help elderly people out by spending time with us?”

The scammer said she did the telephone job because she needed the money.

Wrote Ann: “It’s hopeful to see some slight sign of human compassion behind the robot.”

Well, perhaps, but I still think the pliers may be in order.

Mitch Diamond of Unison, Va., had a great idea. “I assume that the NSA could sort this out and locate all the perpetrators in one afternoon,” he wrote. “Let’s put them on it.”

Well, if Congress or the courts shut down the domestic spying program, maybe the NSA will have some time on its hands. I might even trade a few years’ worth of my telephone records for the occasional drone-launched Hellfire missile aimed at a robo-call scammer.

Room disservice

While we’re on the subject of scams, Bruce A. Johnson of Herndon thinks he was targeted last month by a pernicious one. He and his brother were staying at a hotel in South Carolina. Just after checking in, his brother received a call on the room phone from someone claiming to be the manager.

“Our computer has crashed,” the man said, “and we need to input your credit card information again.”

The man asked Bruce’s brother for his home address and a bunch of other stuff. “My brother said he’d just come down to the front desk and straighten it out,” Bruce wrote. “The caller hung up immediately.”

The front desk clerk said there was nothing wrong with the brother’s payment or the hotel’s computer. Nor had she routed any incoming calls.

“From what we and the local sheriff’s deputy can figure, the call must have come from someone in the hotel, possibly a guest,” Bruce wrote. “The salient point in this story is that anyone who gets a call from ‘the front desk’ asking for information should hang up and go to the front desk to deal with the issue. If, indeed, the hotel management isn’t the source of the call, the police should be called.”

Eternal vigilance, everyone.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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