Some days, you cannot pick up the phone without running into yet another fraudster demanding money.
Maybe it’s not a bad idea to just avoid unknown callers. The con artists keep calling hot spots, after all, where people keep answering the phone.
Americans were blasted by 3.36 billion robocalls in April – up 6.5 percent from a record set in March, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, a provider of voicemail and call blocking services.
It amounted to about 1,297 robocalls every second.
Most of those calls were from debt collectors, according to YouMail. But robocalls are being sent by fraudsters to make it look like the call is coming directly from the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, your electric company, a bank or Microsoft.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich, who was doing business as Marketing Strategy Leaders, which initiated 96.8 million fraudulent robocalls for vacation deals. Abramovich, who lives in Miami, Fla., has denied wrongdoing.
The firm used “neighborhood spoofing” technology to make it seem like calls were from local area codes, even using the first three numbers of the recipient’s own phone number to encourage people to answer robocalls, according to the FCC.
The robocall revolt is building.
Democratic lawmakers in Washington have introduced various bills to stop robocalls, automated calls that use a computerized system to deliver recorded messages to cell phones and landlines. One bill, called the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, would strengthen the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and help the Federal Communications Commission more take action against robocallers.
“Robocalls are a great annoyance for American families, especially American seniors,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., in opening remarks at a robocalls hearing before the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee.
“One-third of calls are now unwanted robocalls,” she said.
Unwanted calls – including illegal robocalls used by criminals pretending to be from the IRS and elsewhere, spoofed calls and telemarketing – are a major source of complaints for regulators. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that fraud from unwanted calls costs consumers about $9.5 billion annually.
In fiscal 2017, the FTC received more than 4.5 million complaints regarding robocalls and nearly another 2.6 million complaints about live callers. Consumers can report unwanted calls at www.ftc.gov/complaint.
Here’s what to watch out for now:
Fake call from a neighbor
You’re always inclined to pick up the phone when you can see the call is from your own area code, even if you don’t recognize the entire number.
But scammers increasingly know how to manipulate caller identification information to make it seem that the call is from a local area code – even though the con artists might be operating in another state or overseas.
“Scammers use such spoofing to increase the likelihood that consumers pick up the phone and to increase the consumer’s trust in the call,” according to a warning from the Federal Communications Commission.
Fake utility bill collector
Fraudsters aren’t just calling to demand money for unpaid tax bills. Some scams have morphed into attempts to con people into handing over money for fake utility bills, too.
Scammers pretending to be from DTE Energy convinced a Troy, Mich., man to send $393 by threatening that his power would be shut off in April.
The man told Troy police that he knew he owed money to DTE, so he followed the instructions given by the callers and loaded money on a Green Dot MoneyPak card. Then the consumer called the fraudster back and read him the serial numbers for the MoneyPak card.
Worse yet, the scammer called later that day to demand another $893. And the consumer ended up being scammed out of even more money.
The money flow stopped once the scammer called to demand $1,900 the next day because the callers claimed that “previous payments did not go through.” The victim called DTE and was told it was a scam.
Michael Lynch, chief security officer for DTE in Detroit, said the phony utility collection calls are rampant across the country, but typically don’t start out with a robocall.
“It starts out with a real person and they call and say, ‘We’re going to shut off your lights in two hours unless you pay this money,' “ Lynch said.
In addition to collection calls, consumers are getting hit with other utility-related robocalls.
About 19 million such utility-scam calls were made in March relating to a pitch involving “save money – need your info,” according to YouMail.
One scam: A robocall may suggest a program that can pay your utility bills at a discount if you wire money elsewhere first, instead of paying your utility directly.
“Obviously, a bad idea,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici via e-mail.
Fake IRS bill
Crooks are now using telephone numbers that are spoofed to look like they’re from the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers to trick taxpayers into paying nonexistent bills, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Scam artists have programmed their computers to display the TAC phone number to appear on the taxpayer’s Caller ID.
When a taxpayer questions whether the call is real, the con artist directs the taxpayer to the IRS.gov site to “confirm” that the call is from a legitimate number for a local TAC office.
After the taxpayer has “verified” the call number, the fraudsters resume their demands for money – typically on a prepaid card or a gift card.
The use of a prepaid card or a gift card enables a fraudster to practically immediately transfer money from the card purchased by the consumer onto another card held by the crooks. Think of it like transferring two or three Starbucks gift cards onto your Starbucks gold rewards card.
More than 43 million robocalls were made in March alone relating to IRS-related scams – nearly doubling from February, according to YouMail’s research.
Regardless of how authentic the caller ID might look, the IRS warns that taxpayers should never fall for unreasonable demands.
“If the contact from the IRS is threatening in any way, demanding immediate payment, and demanding payment by a particular method it’s not the IRS,” said Luis Garcia, an IRS spokesperson in Detroit.
Fake 0 percent credit card offer
Nearly 123 million robocalls were made in March with a promise to get your credit card rates down to 0 percent. It was the most frequent scam robocall in March, according to YouMail’s research.
Sometimes, you'll hear from “Heather in Account Services” or maybe someone from “Card Member Services.”
In some scams, you might be asked for an up-front fee to get the ball rolling on those lower rates. In another twist, scammers promising a low rate might ask you to read off your credit card number first to them over the phone to verify the card.
Don’t pay the fee or hand over your credit card information to strangers.
Amendments to the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibit companies that sell relief services like these rate reduction scams on the phone from charging a fee before they settle or reduce your debt.
A better bet? Call the credit card company directly to request a reduced rate.
Fake money-making guarantee
One word can make a questionable investment seem less suspect – guarantee.
But the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, warns that impostors have been posing as securities regulators and offering ironclad investment guarantees in a phony pitch to buy up virtually worthless shares of stock.
Scammers often send investors “official-looking documents, complete with logos and seals” as part of the ploy to make their stock buyback pitch look more legitimate.
In some cases, the con artists want personal information that can be used for ID theft. Or they might ask for an advance fee to handle the sale of some stock.
“Once you send the money, you never see it – or any of the money promised from the stock buyback – again,” FINRA warns.
FINRA has a toll-free number for senior investors who have concerns about their brokers and investments, as well as questions about potential scams.
The hotline: 844-574-3577. The phone is staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET on weekdays.
Remember, con artists are able to share lists of names and phone numbers, as well as some financial holdings of potential victims. So they might be able to sound legitimate.
The financial fraudsters are more than willing to make repeated phone calls, too.
Hang up. Do not engage. Do not respond.
The risk of being scammed goes up when you answer some of these calls.
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.