It was just a careless mistake. That new Sears MasterCard I received in the mail required activation from my home phone number, so I squinted at the very small numbers on the sticker and dialed.
I was a bit surprised (but only a bit) when a recording stated, “We would like your opinion in a quick, three-minute survey. As a thank you, select callers will receive a Caribbean cruise.”
There was no doubt in my mind what would come next.
“As a reward for completing our survey, you’ve won a free cruise for two. You’re only responsible for nominal port fees of $65 per person.”
The Risk of Misdialing
For years, I’ve heard from individuals who fat-fingered a credit card company’s 800 number and ended up in deep water. Since 2013, I’ve tracked this problem and wondered how scammers secure the many toll-free numbers that are oh-so-close to card companies’ legitimate ones.
The first complaint came from a Denver woman who tried to reach Chase Sapphire Cardholder Services. Sapphire is the company’s elite credit card option and it comes with stellar customer service. The cardholder dialed the number on the back of her titanium card and a live person answered. Chase mans their Sapphire support center in Springfield, Illinois with real humans. So that seemed proper.
Her misdial was just one digit off; scammers had set up shop right next to Chase’s correct phone number expecting many misdials. She encountered (and I later experienced) multiple attempts to grab her credit card number from folks that represented themselves as being from Chase Sapphire in Springfield.
At my request, Chase’s Fraud Division investigated, but eventually said they were helpless to shut this scam down because it wasn’t their phone number.
It’s easy to see how the problem occurs if you look at any phone keypad:
- Chase Sapphire: 800 493 3319
- Scam number: 800 496 3319
Today, that same scam number is still in operation. Years ago, that phone number located close to Sapphire’s pedaled cruises; now their pitch targets folks over 50. Perhaps that’s because folks over 50 can have cataracts and glaucoma that could create vision errors?
This week, a friend called to gripe all the hours she’d lost that day trying to reach Bellco Credit Union. She’d dialed their hotline after trying to bank online. Then she was told she had to answer a bunch of questions in an unwanted survey to get connected. If you guessed that she received the cruise pitch, you are correct. She stopped just short of providing her credit card to pay for port fees. The second time, she again misdialed, but eventually reached Bellco on a third attempt.
The Risk for Veterans
Veterans are being targeted too. The Veterans Administration (VA) recently set up Veterans’ Choice Program (VCP). It allows some veterans to go outside the VA care system and still receive covered benefits from approved providers—a big plus with the long appointment waits at many VA facilities. The catch? Veterans had to call in to determine their eligibility.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission warned, “Con artists (are) using a phone number that’s almost identical to the real thing, counting on creating confusion. You call and think you’ve reached the VCP. The fake line’s message says you’re entitled to a rebate if you provide a credit card number.”
Of course, there is no rebate but many callers, thinking they’ve reached VCP, could bite.
The Risk of Cramming
All it takes is a slip of a fingertip to create an instant headache and sometimes, you don’t even need to surrender your credit card number to get charged. If you call from a cell phone, you may be “crammed.”
Cramming is the all-too-common practice of adding an unauthorized fee to your cellphone bill. Quite often, consumers never notice this charge on the monthly bill because they don’t check it. On a landline, the fee could be a mere $3.95 required for “shipping and handling” to receive your phony prize.
Share this story with folks you know who may have vision issues, cataracts, or glaucoma. These eye conditions could make it hard to view subtleties in phone numbers. Criminals have a talent for looking and sounding like legit companies, which boost their odds of success. So, dial with deliberate care. With a simple misdial, you could inadvertently give scammers access to your financial data. Store cardholder service numbers in your phone if possible so that you dial correctly every time.
There’s an old adage in the data protection field: Never give your personal information over the phone unless you initiate the call. Now you know the exception to that very savvy rule.
Learn more about the VCP phone number scam here.