You had me at “hello.” New Better Business Bureau study looks at scams

by | Aug 9, 2020 | Police and Fire

From The Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia:

One of the most common scams in the U.S. today is callers pretending to be government officials. Some claim to be tax officials or Social Security representatives and others law enforcement officers. All of them use fear and intimidation to trick victims into turning over personal information or money, often in the form of gift cards.

A new investigative study by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds that scams have become even more diverse and sophisticated. In addition, many scammers have taken advantage of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by posing as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials or Internal Revenue Service representatives who can “expedite” economic impact payments, or contact tracers employed with local government.

The investigative study — Government Impostor Scams: Reports Decrease, Scammers Pivot for New Opportunities, BBB Study Reveals — highlights the risk of this common but costly fraud. Read the full study at BBB.org/FakeGov

A recent AARP survey also found that 44% of people in the U.S. have been contacted by one of these impersonators. Law enforcement officials have received hundreds of thousands of complaints. Scam complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report $450 million in losses since 2015.

Many of these scams involve robocalls, and they most commonly originate from India where call center expertise is particularly plentiful.

“Government impostor scams are constantly evolving, and they prey on people by using threats of being arrested if money isn’t paid or personal information provided,” said Barry N. Moore, President & CEO of BBB serving Central Virginia. “Consumers need to know how to recognize and avoid these damaging and costly frauds,” he added.

In 2019, BBB reports about scammers impersonating tax officials dropped sharply while reports about Social Security Administration (SSA) impersonators quadrupled in the U.S. Criminals shift their focus as needed.

In many cases, scammers insist they are law enforcement officers and threaten to arrest people immediately if they don’t pay what’s demanded, usually with gift cards. They may tell consumers their Social Security number has been associated with a crime, or may threaten to deport recent immigrants, or threaten to arrest people for missing jury duty. 

Other scam callers lure victims with the promise of a “free” government grant, which they claim will be awarded if the victim pays a fee with a gift card or prepaid debit card. In reality, there is no grant—it’s a scam. 

Impostor calls from India must first go through a “gateway carrier” in the U.S. These carriers often provide “spoofed” phone numbers and return payphone call numbers for voicemails whose return appear to go to US locations. The DOJ recently sued two of these carriers, while the FTC and Federal Communication Commission issued warning letters to others. As a result, robocalls and individual calls from India have declined drastically over the last several months. 

US law enforcement efforts have led to the arrest of dozens of Indian nationals for laundering money related to these scams. However, the study notes that cases are rarely prosecuted in India (nor scams from China).

The report recommends:

·         Efforts to prevent fraud calls to the US have shown promising results, and the telecom industry should continue more strenuous efforts to stop illegal calls and to end caller ID spoofing. Legislation may be needed to fix the problem of gateway carriers–the corridors to overseas scammers.

·         The government of India should do much more to prosecute and extradite those operating these kinds of frauds coming from that country.

·         Law enforcement should continue to take action against scammers who are physically present in the US.

·         Efforts by many retailers and banks to question people buying gift cards have had limited success in stopping the purchase of gift cards to pay scammers. The gift card industry and retailers should explore additional public information means to help stem fraudulent use of their products.



How to complain about government impostor scams:

·         IRS: The Internal Revenue Service advises people to fill out the “IRS Impersonation Scam” form on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Impersonation’s website, tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484.

·         Social Security: The Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration (SSA IG) has its own online form to take complaints about frauds impersonating the SSA.

·         Federal Trade Commission: 877-FTC Help or ftc.gov.

·         Internet Crime Complaint Center: https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/splash.aspx

·         Contact your cell phone carrier, which may offer free services such as scam call identification and blocking, ID monitoring, a second phone number to give out to businesses so you can use your main number for close friends, or a new number if you get too many spam calls.

·         File a BBB Scam Tracker report; help others from being scammed.

About BBB: BBB serving Central Virginia serves Richmond, the Tri-Cities, Charlottesville, and Fredericksburg, as well as 42 surrounding counties from Fauquier to Mecklenburg and Northumberland to Amherst. The nonprofit organization was established in 1954 to advance responsible, honest, and ethical business practices and to promote customer confidence through self-regulation of business. Core services of BBB include business profiles, dispute resolution, truth-in advertising, scam warnings, consumer and business education, and charity review.

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