Fear by Phone: High Anxiety for You, High Profits for Scammers

The telephone is a scammer’s best weapon, used in 77 percent of money-netting schemes, according to the government’s latest scam-tracking data. The best ammo: fear, and here’s how it bangs best for the biggest bucks:

“Official” intimidation. The most profitable and most played schemes have fraudsters posing from a government agency — Medicare, the Social Security Administration, the FBI, local police and, of course, the IRS. (Until it was busted last year, one India-based ring of IRS impostors was netting $150,000 per day preying on retirees and other Americans.)  These self-described G-men threaten dire consequences — lost benefits, impending arrest and hefty fines — for supposed (even minor) offenses unless a fine is immediately paid or ID theft-worthy personal information is “verified.”

Why hang up: If there’s really an issue, government agencies will contact you by U.S. mail — not phone. Arrests aren’t preannounced. Tax-supported agencies do not demand, and may not even accept, scammer-requested payments such as prepaid debit and iTunes cards.

“Friendly” fraud. Along with emotions, the fear factor climbs with scare tactics made by those you supposedly know and trust: grandchildren claiming trouble while traveling (which nets some impostors $10,000 per day) or, in a recent resurgence, a telephoned virtual kidnapping. Online sweethearts contact you about a sudden overseas emergency that requires financial help. Your bank, credit card or utility company supposedly warns you of account problems that could lead to lost service.

Why hang up: Verify the claim and contact your loved one or institution before providing money or information to those just claiming to be. Scammers can glean convincing information like relatives’ names from social media and online directories.

Robocalls. The messages are terrifying in many of 2.4 billion robocalls made each month: You are being sued. You can fall and die without that “free” medical alert device. You are overpaying interest on your plastic. You need quick action to avoid these and other problems.

Why hang up: Notice what isn’t mentioned in these robocalls? Your name. Autodialers are programmed to blast millions of prerecorded calls per day; until recipients respond, fraudsters typically have no idea of who gets their robocalls, or if dialed numbers are active. So don’t say anything after “Hello” or push any key, not even to supposedly “opt out” of future calls; that only alerts callers that your number is live. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission recently proposed new rules, expected to take effect in coming months, to allow phone companies to block robocallers that spoof caller ID numbers (concealing their actual area codes and identities or making them appear to belong to a trusted entity).

Debt collectors. Generating more complaints than any category — including identity theft — debt collectors often try to scare targets into paying a debt, whether legitimate or not.

Why hang up: It’s illegal for collectors to threaten or be abusive. Despite the collectors' lies, police don’t arrest people for unpaid debts. And Social Security benefits can be garnisheed only for delinquent state or federal debts such as unpaid student loans, taxes, government-backed mortgages or child support — not private debt.

If you really owe, you may want to talk once with calling collectors to try to resolve the matter. If it’s not your debt or you don’t wanted continued calls, write a letter saying so — and send it by certified mail with return receipt. Once receiving your letter, collectors may not contact you again, with two exceptions: to tell you there will be no further contact, or to let you know that they or the creditor intends to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit. (Your letter doesn’t get rid of legitimate debts, only calls related to them.) Report violators to the Federal Trade Commission or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. Keep tabs on scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map .

Photo: ponsulak/iStock

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