Phone scams hit millions of Americans annually. While groups like the American Association of Retired People, better known as AARP, often warn its members about phone scams, every age group is at risk when a caller is trying to reach into your wallet. A survey conducted by Truecaller, a developer of a spam-blocking app, reported that in 2017 millennial males were the most likely to pay out money to phone scammers.
There are dozens of variations on the phone scam. Themes to watch out for include:
- Your grandson needs bail money.
- You’re going to be arrested for skipping jury duty.
- Your computer has a virus.
- Your computer’s operating system license is about to expire.
- The IRS is suing you.
The one thing these schemes all share is the demand that you pay money immediately using methods that are hard to reverse once you realize you’ve been scammed.
Stopping the Perpetrators
Catching and prosecuting these thieves is no easy task, but some cases do succeed. In May 2016, the US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration announced the arrest of five individuals running a “You owe the IRS money, and we’re suing you” scam based in India. A second raid by investigators in October 2016 documented that phony IRS “agents” in Mumbai raked in $90,000 to $150,000 per day with their calls.
In response to rising phone scams, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated its Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) that governs phone sales in 2015. Callers are now banned from using MoneyGram, Western Union, or other instant fund payment methods. Reloads to pre-paid cards are also prohibited. So, if someone asks you to use one of these payment options, it’s time to hang up.
Getting a Refund
Hundreds of millions of dollars are stolen through phone scams and instant fund payments annually, and refunds are usually hard to get. However, the FTC recently announced an opportunity for victims of scammers to share in a $586 million settlement if payment was made via Western Union.
The settlement covers transactions between January 1, 2004 and January 19, 2017. FTC officials believe that the company failed to report suspicious transactions or protect customer interests. Western Union agreed to establish the refund account in 2017.
If you’ve already reported an incident to the FTC, you should receive a form in the mail. Consumers who didn’t file complaints can contact FTC.gov/WU for details on what’s needed to file. Even if you lack a receipt for the transaction, you can submit a claim providing details of the encounter. Act fast because all claims must be submitted before May 31, 2018.
Know the warning signs. Any caller who demands instant payment should be suspect. Scare tactics including threats of police raids or imminent imprisonment are often used to trigger fear and quick payment. Government agencies like the IRS do not use phone calls as their first effort to communicate. When these calls occur, just hang up. Then report the abuse to the FTC using its complaint assistant system.