Susan Tompor: Scam artists dial for dollars by threatening jail time

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 26, 2015

A ringing phone too often is just one more sign of a scam. Uh oh, who is it now? The IRS demanding cash on the spot? A guy yelling at me and threatening to lock me up if I don’t pay up? That whacked out guy who calls to "fix" your computer?

Sure, things aren’t quite that bad. Every single phone call you receive isn’t really from a con artist.

But seriously, the fraudsters are dialing for dollars big time.

My 17-year-old son said a caller told him he won a trip to the Bahamas. Of course, he had a special Social Security number to offer them in case anyone asked: "1-2-3-Go-2."

College students report that they’re getting calls from people claiming to be from the local police or another government entity threatening arrest, according to the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

The caller tells the student to send money via a prepaid card or wire money quickly in order to avoid jail time. The fraudsters might claim the student faces an arrest warrant for unpaid student loans or unpaid taxes or even immigration issues.

In some cases, the con artists use legitimate-looking phone numbers that spoof the caller ID to make it appear that the call is from the sheriff’s office, the state police, the Internal Revenue Service or another government entity.

The IRS scam remains hot, as various communities report complaints about con artists trying to make a quick buck by pretending to be from the IRS and demanding immediate payment. Some towns in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin have reported a flurry of the impostor IRS calls in early October.

In Kentucky, for example, authorities earlier had warned that IRS impostors had spoofed phone numbers to make it look like the calls were coming from the Kentucky State Police Post 7. The caller said the Kentucky State Police had a warrant out for an arrest because they owed the IRS money. The state police, of course, do not act as a collection agency for the IRS.

Jan Volzke, vice president of reputation services for Whitepages, said consumers need to realize that scammers can even find it easier to phone you to con you than it is to scam you via email. After all, spam filters catch more of the phony emails before they even reach consumers.

"Plain phone calls have become one of the few doors that have been left open," Volzke said.

Young consumers, he noted, often have no qualms about posting their phone numbers on Facebook or Twitter when they are asking someone, maybe a major company, to contact them about an issue. Or maybe they include a phone number in an online resume. But web crawlers can actively search for those phone numbers for others to use.

"And that lets scammers easily craft messages and pitches," Volzke said.

Security breaches also generate a list of phone numbers that can be sold on the black market, said Volzke, whose company has a free app to block unwanted calls.

His suggestions: Keep your phone number as much of a secret as possible. Never believe that what you see on your caller ID is automatically the real deal. It’s too easy to make a caller ID seem like it’s from a legitimate organization.

"When you’re not sure, just hang up," Volzke said.

Consumers also need to realize that the cost of entry to scammers is low when it comes to making all those calls, he said, given the computer-based technology.

"This problem is not going away," Volzke said.

Other phone scams: Some consumers report that they’ve heard from someone who claims that a lawsuit has been filed in their name. And then the caller demands the person send money within a half hour or face spending six months in jail.

One caller claimed to be an attorney named "Sam Wilson" at a 954 area code.

Others have reported robocalls from someone claiming to be from legal center with a warning that an arrest warrant will soon be prepared unless someone calls that number back instantly.

In Michigan, one consumer reported to the AARP Fraud Watch Network that a scammer even called her mother late last year claiming that her cell phone service would be shut off if she did not pay immediately. The cell phone provider did not make the call.

Of course, consumers should never give out Social Security numbers or bank account information, never rush to put money on a prepaid card to settle some score or ever believe that the IRS is going to send someone out of the blue to arrest you right now.

The Federal Trade Commission takes consumer complaints at impostor scams and other scams at or at the FTC’s Consumer Response Center at 877-382-4357.

As unsettling as the calls are to receive, the best approach could be to avoid answering the repeat calls. Slam the phone. Or maybe you want to have a sense of humor and play along by saying you’d rather win a trip to Jamaica, instead of the Bahamas, so you’d have a chance to meet the scammers face to face.