Robert Morris does not think of himself as an easy mark.
Nevertheless, the retired University of Washington staffer nearly fell prey to the ploy of a sophisticated telephone scammer who said Morris had missed jury duty and would be arrested if he didn’t immediately pay a $200 fine.
Morris, 72, and his partner initially believed the con man. He appeared to be calling from a local sheriff’s office. And they had recently been having trouble with mail delivery at their West Seattle home, so it stood to reason Morris could have missed a summons.
“It was after hours, so it was confusing, but he was so definite and seemed to know where we were at, that we thought, ‘Oh, gosh, we better take care of this,'” Morris said Friday. He hopes sharing the story of how he and his partner almost got taken could help others avoid the trouble.
The barrage of automated telephone solicitations and robocalls to Americans’ phones added up to nearly 50 billion calls in 2018, a 56% increase over the previous year, according to some estimates. To make matters worse, experts say as many as half of these calls may be attempts to defraud consumers.
“Very smart people can fall for these scams,” AARP communications director Jason Erskine said. “The scammers are very good.”
Earlier this week, the organization put on a “Spoof-Proof Your Life” event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, where the AARP and Washington state’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson explained to a capacity crowd what the survey data showed, gave tips on how to avoid falling for a scam and stressed the importance of reporting scams.
“It’s important to always report scam attempts, even if you don’t fall victim,” Chuck Harwood, Federal Trade Commission regional director, said in a news statement released by AARP. “Your story makes a difference. Every report is a piece of the puzzle that helps authorities see a fuller picture of what scammers are doing, which can also help in law enforcement actions. Scammers don’t rip off just one person, and your story could be the one that helps protect others.”
The survey also showed that while most Washington adults know to be wary of calls coming from “Unknown,” “Private,” or “Restricted” numbers, they’re not prepared to resist the fear induced by calls that seem to be coming from sheriffs’ departments, police, the IRS and other official agencies.
Fraudsters understand that fear sells and are increasingly turning to pitches designed to threaten or scare victims into handing over their money, according to the AARP. And it works, Erskine said.
“By using programs that are readily and cheaply available online, scammers can manipulate your caller ID so that calls appear to come from any number or source they choose — and consumers are falling for it,” AARP state director Doug Shadel said.
Scammers often pretend to be calling from a number that looks eerily similar to yours.
According to AARP’s survey, 60% of Washington adults say they are more likely to answer the phone if their caller ID shows a local number. Nearly half of respondents would likely answer if shown an area code where friends and/or family live, and 41% say they are more likely to pick up if the prefix on the caller ID matches their own.
Morris, who attended the AARP event this week, said he learned there that what happened to him was almost a textbook shakedown: the call seemed to come from a law-enforcement agency, and the con artist kept him on the phone as he went to a bank, withdrew $200 in cash and then went to a store to purchase credit cards. The scammer also directed Morris to a legitimate place, the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle, where he said he’d take the credit cards and issue Morris a receipt.
The caller seemed to know where Morris and his partner were each step of the way, asking if they were on the viaduct, for example, and adding to their sense of worry.
The ruse ended when Morris went into the QFC on Capitol Hill to buy the credit cards. He was unfamiliar with how to do that, and when he spoke to the clerk about it, the clerk said she thought it was scam. Two other customers took the phone from Morris and “yelled at the scammer,” he said.
After that, Morris hung up, went to the police station and reported the incident.
He said he’s learned since then not to be afraid to ask for help and not to expect truth from unknown callers.
“We get calls all the time that are probably scams, but now I just don’t answer them anymore,” he said.
To avoid becoming a victim, follow these tips:
Don’t rely on caller ID alone to identify who is calling
“Whether it’s online or on the phone, advances in technology have made it very easy for scammers to impersonate trusted sources,” said Sean Murphy, senior vice president and chief information security officer for BECU, the credit union.
“Be suspicious of requests for personal information or pressure to take action quickly. Also be wary of requests for abnormal payment methods, such as through a gift card or wire transfer.”
Use call-blocking services
Consider getting a call-blocking service like Nomorobo or You Mail, or contact your phone company and ask if they offer a call-blocking feature. AARP’s survey showed that 81% of Washington adults don’t use a robocall-blocking service.
Independently verify the identity of those calling
About half of Washington adults seldom or never look up a number online to determine whether it’s a scam, according to AARP’s survey.
“The best thing you can do to prevent fraud is be vigilant, avoid unsolicited offers and safeguard your personal information,” said Courtney Gregoire, assistant general counsel for Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit. “Be wary of unsolicited phone calls or pop-up messages on your electronic devices. Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team of whom you are already a customer. If you think you may have been the victim of a scam, file a report with law-enforcement authorities, including your local consumer protection authority. You could help stop fraudsters in their tracks.”
Report fraud to the appropriate law-enforcement agencies
Most adults in Washington skip this step, AARP’s survey found: 79% of Washington adults haven’t reported telemarketing robocalls, 84% haven’t reported calls with fake or misleading display numbers, and 81% haven’t reported attempted telephone scams.
Additional “Spoof Proof Your Life” events are scheduled for Kennewick on May 30, Spokane on June 12 and Vancouver on June 26. You can sign up for them at www.aarp.org/wa or you can call 1-877-926-8300.
You can also sign up for fraud alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.
HBO’s John Oliver had some fun explaining robocalls and phone scams on a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight.”
“Everybody is annoyed by robocalls. Hatred of them might be the only thing that everyone in America agrees on now,” he said to set up the segment. “… And while a small percentage of robocalls may be useful calls about things like school closings or prescription reminders, the vast majority of them vary from the irritating to the outright illegal.”