When They Ask if You Can Hear Them, Say “No!”

Q. I think my mother was the victim of a scam. She had some suspect charges on her credit card last month for more than $500, and was quite upset when the bank called and told her that her bank card was compromised, as well. I asked her if she gave her credit card number to anyone, and she said no, but a kind gentleman called her from a mortgage company, and asked her if she could hear him. She is sensitive about her hearing, since she is 80 and wears a hearing aid, so when asked, she of course said “Yes.” I wonder if this call had anything to do with her credit card being charged fraudulently? She also mentioned that the “IRS” called her recently demanding payment, which doesn’t sound right to me. Have you heard about any scams like this that are targeting seniors? Thanks for your help!

A. National Consumer Protection Week was recently observed in the United States. During this time of year, we realize that consumer education helps keep seniors and all Americans informed while providing them with resources to explain their rights and protections. It is also a time when information about scams comes to light and, unfortunately, what you described are scams that are affecting a lot of people in our country, and many of them are seniors.

What likely happened to your mother when the “man from the mortgage company” called is a scam known as “cramming,” and it has become more prevalent recently. In fact, last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai published a column on what he called an “explosion” of robocalls. He reports that American consumers received about 29 billion robocalls in 2016—or roughly 230 calls per household.

According to complaints the FCC has received and public news reports, the fraudulent callers impersonate representatives from organizations that provide a service and may be familiar to the person receiving the call, such as a mortgage lender or utility, to establish a legitimate reason for trying to reach the consumer.

The scam begins when a consumer answers a call and the computer (sounding like a real person) at the end of the line asks, “Can you hear me?”  The robocaller computer then records the consumer’s “Yes” response and thus obtains a voice signature. This signature can later be used by the scammers to pretend to be the consumer’s authorization of fraudulent charges via telephone.  A slight variation of the strategy involves a robocaller saying, always after a short delay, something like “Oh, I’m sorry, I was having trouble with my headset. Can you hear me now?” 

The FCC warns that if you receive this type of call, immediately hang up.  In fact, if you receive any type of call where you say hello and the caller on the other end does not immediately respond, that means it is a robocall and you should immediately hang up.  If you have already responded to this type of call, review all of your statements such as those from your bank, credit card lender, or telephone company for unauthorized charges. If you notice unauthorized charges on these and other types of statements, you have likely been a victim of “cramming.” Anyone who believes they have been targeted by this scam should immediately report the incident to the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker and to the FCC Consumer Help Center.

IRS – Impersonation Telephone Scams

You also mentioned that your mother was called by the “IRS.” This sounds like a phone scam that has been targeting taxpayers during this time of year. Callers claim to be employees of the IRS, but are not. These con artists can sound convincing when they call. They use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. They may know a lot about their targets, and they usually alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling. 

Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Or, victims may be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Your mother and others should know that the IRS will never:

• Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail you a bill if you owe any taxes.

• Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

• Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.

• Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

Be on the Lookout for Telephone Scams

Consumers should always be on alert for telephone scams.  The following tips can help you and your loved ones ward off unwanted calls and scams:

• Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers.  Let them go to voicemail.

• If you answer and the caller (often a recording) asks you to hit a button to stop receiving calls, just hang up.  Scammers often use these tricks to identify, and then target, live respondents.

• If you receive a scam call, write down the number and file a complaint with the FCC so they can help identify and take appropriate action to help consumers targeted by illegal callers. You should also block that number from calling you in the future. This is easily done on most cell phones. For instance, on an iPhone, simply go to your “recents” caller list, click on the little “i” to the right, and then click “Block this Caller.”  

• Ask your phone service provider if it offers a robocall blocking service.  If not, encourage your provider to offer one.  You can also visit the FCC’s website for information and resources on available robocall blocking tools to help reduce unwanted calls.  As an example, to block anonymous calls on your iPhone, where the Caller ID says “Unknown Caller” or “No Caller ID,” then first create contacts and then block calls from those contacts. The contacts should be called “Unknown” as the first name and “Caller” as the last name, and “No” for the first name and “Caller ID” for the last name.

• As explained above, if you receive any type of call where you say hello and the caller on the other end does not immediately respond, hang up. 

• Consider registering all of your telephone numbers in the National Do Not Call Registry, not that this actually helps against fraudulent robocallers

At the Farr Law Firm, we encourage you to stay informed about these and other scams this Consumer Protection Week and always. Other scams out there include phony charities asking for donations, advance-fee loans, fake checks, and identity theft. Read the FBI Common Fraud Schemes Web page or the Better Business Bureau Scam Stopper Web page for more details and be sure to report any scams to the Better Business Bureau.

Keeping up with scams that are affecting consumers is important. It is also very important to keep up with your planning. If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us as soon as possible to schedule your appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797


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