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The FTC warns of several common imposter scams. Here's how to protect yourself.
It was 10:30 in the morning. Charley* and his wife were about to head out the door when he received a phone call that stopped him in his tracks.
Weeping, the caller said he was Charley’s grandson, and that he was in jail. He claimed he’d gone to Austin, Minn., because his friend from college had been killed in a car accident. Furthermore, he’d been stopped by police who found $80,000 in street drugs in the trunk. Police realized the young man was an innocent bystander, but they needed $9,400 in bail money.
Then Charley’s grandson handed the phone to a man who said he was a cop named John Avery.
“He talked to me for a while and assured me my grandson was in no danger, but the federal government required the money to be in cash,” Charley said, adding that the callers told him not to call anyone else.
Suspicious, Charley called his son, then talked to a friend of his who works at Bell Bank.
“He immediately said it sounds like a scam,” Charley said.
Charley tried calling his grandson, but couldn’t reach him. And he called the Austin Police Department, who told him they had no one named John Avery on the force.
While Charley was talking to the police on his cell phone, the scammer posing as his grandson called back on the landline, wanting to know if he was getting the money. Charley’s wife answered and told the caller Charley was on the other line with the Austin Police Department. The scammer immediately hung up.
Charley’s story illustrates the growing problem of identity theft and imposter scams. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 490,220 consumer complaints of identity theft and 353,770 consumer complaints of imposter scams in 2015, the latest numbers available.
And many cases are not reported because the victims are embarrassed they fell for the scam. But scammers are experts at what they do.
We see attempted fraudulent scams almost daily. The people who are doing it are very good at social engineering. They convince people they are who they say they are.
Imposters pretend to be someone you’d likely trust, such as a relative or government official, to trick you into sending them money or giving them your personal information. They might also say you’ve won a prize, and you have to pay taxes or fees before receiving it.
And they prey on people’s emotions. If they can get you emotionally connected, you don’t think as clearly.
Charley said the initial conversation sounded plausible. Since the scammer was crying, Charley said he thought it could be his grandson. The scammer knew some basic information about his grandson – like where he went to college and what he was studying, all details Charley said he could have gotten off of the internet.
Before it happened to him, Charley said he thought he would be able to recognize a scam.
“The initial call was pretty convincing,” he said. “I was pretty panicky. It’s scary, and there are a lot of people who have been scammed by it.”
The best thing to do is call the person you think you’re talking to on a number you know is theirs, and don’t send any money until you hear from them. Chances are, they weren’t the one calling.
If someone asks you to pay for something with cash, a gift card or prepaid debit card or tells you to wire money, it’s likely a scam. Credit cards have a lot of fraud protection built in, and scammers ask victims to pay in ways they can get the money fast and it’s nearly impossible to get back.
The grandkid scam Charley experienced is just one of a handful of common imposter scams. The FTC also warns of these others:
IRS Imposter Scams
Scammers claim to be from the IRS and say you owe back taxes. They might threaten you, may know some of your social security number and may have a Washington, D.C. phone number. The caller will also likely ask you to pay with a prepaid debit card or a wire transfer. But the FTC says the IRS won’t ask you to pay by those methods or ask for a credit card over the phone. And the IRS first contacts people about unpaid taxes by mail.
Tech Support Scams
These scammers call, claiming to be a computer technician from a well-known company or your internet service provider, saying there are viruses or other malware on your computer. The caller might say you have to give him remote access to your computer or buy new software to fix the problem. Never give control of your computer or your credit card information to someone who calls you unexpectedly.
Online Dating Scams
Scammers make fake dating profiles, sometimes using photos of other people, to build a fake relationship with you so they can trick you into sending money. The hard part about this scam is you might grow to have real feelings for the scammer. Then the scammer might ask for money, saying it’s for emergency surgery or a plane ticket to visit you, but the FTC says an online love interest who asks for money is almost certainly a scammer.
Scammers might send you letters, emails, texts or call you claiming to be from a law firm or government agency and threatening to arrest you or take you to court if you don’t pay a debt they say you owe. They might even have your correct name, address and Social Security number. But the FTC says there is no legitimate reason for someone to ask you to wire money or load a rechargeable money card as a way to pay back a debt. If you’re unsure, look up the official number and call the real agency or office to ask about the debt.
Scammers who claim you won a lottery or sweepstakes might tell you you’ll have to pay taxes or service charges to collect your winnings. They might also ask you to send money to an insurance company to insure prize delivery. If you enter and win a legitimate sweepstakes, the FTC says you don’t have to pay insurance, taxes or shipping charges to collect your prize, and companies don’t insure delivery of sweepstakes winnings. Remember, if you didn’t enter a sweepstakes or lottery, you can’t have won.
If you spot a scam, report it at ftc.gov/complaint. You can also sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams.
Identity theft is another growing problem, but there are some ways you can protect yourself. Bell Bank customers already have access to free fraud-fighting tools.
1. Identity Theft Recovery
All Bell Bank personal checking customers and their qualified household members are automatically covered with our free identity theft recovery program, which covers any identity theft, including fraudulent use of your name, Social Security number, bank account, any credit/debit card, or other identifying information—even of non-Bell Bank accounts and credit cards with up to $10,000 ID theft expense reimbursement insurance. Plus, a free personal recovery advocate assigned to you will manage your recovery plan and contact banks, credit card companies and agencies for you, working on your behalf for as long as it takes to recover your good name. Household members include your spouse or domestic partner and dependents under age 25 who have the same permanent address as you.
Bell’s free CardValet mobile app alerts you whenever your card is used. You can use the app to turn off your card whenever you’re not using it (or if you think it’s been lost or stolen), so it can’t be used by anyone else. Just download the free app to get started.
3. Chip Technology
Bell Bank debit cards include chip technology, which is more secure than traditional magnetic stripe cards. We are making every effort to protect your accounts against fraud. Chip cards are an essential piece of that puzzle. The embedded microchip provides dynamic transaction security features and other capabilities not possible with traditional magnetic stripe cards. A chip card is extremely difficult to counterfeit and provides the world’s most sophisticated fraud protection for debit and credit cards.
4. Mobile and Online Banking
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. With online banking, you have instant access to your account, so Matt says to check it at least once a week to make sure all of the charges are yours. One of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to keep your account information secure. Bell Bank will never ask you for your confidential personal or account information via email.
Phishing scams often have a sense of urgency telling you that if you fail to update or confirm your personal or account information, access to your accounts will be suspended. They typically ask for personal information such as account numbers, passwords and sensitive information such as your birth date or mother’s maiden name.
If you believe you have provided information about your Bell Bank accounts to a fraudulent email or website, contact us immediately by calling 701-298-1550 or toll-free 800-450-8949.
For more tips on how you can avoid identity theft and fraud, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website regarding Privacy & Identity.
*Charley’s name has been changed to protect his identity.