If you’ve used the Internet even once in your life, you’re probably familiar with scams. From the more obvious pop-up viruses to the well-disguised phishing emails, scams are an ever-present nuisance in our lives in the digital age. While you have likely encountered fraud attempts online before, what about over the phone?
In the wake of the OPM hack, many scammers have reverted from an online medium back to phone scams. Operating under the guise of authoritative government organizations like the IRS and FTC, these imposters pose as government officials to sweet-talk, or even intimidate individuals into giving out their personal information. In recent days, these fraudulent FTC officials have been calling OPM data breach victims, offering them financial recompense for the hack in return for personal information to forward the funds.
“Now that people’s information is out there through the OPM data breach, you may be more susceptible to imposter scams because people have a little bit of information about you, or perhaps a lot of information about you, and they can use that to make their imposter scams more believable,” said the Federal Trade Commission’s Lisa Weintraub Schifferle.
As an attorney with the Division of Consumer and Business Education at the FTC, Schifferle is versed in the numerous types of scam operations out there today. “Imposter scams are a huge problem right now,” she said. Ranking behind only identity theft and debt collection, “[imposter scams] are the number three type of complaint that the FTC receives in terms of all types of fraud and identity theft complaints.”
It may seem obvious when put in text, but over the phone, with your personal information laid out in front of them, scammers can be quite convincing. What should you do if the government calls?
In an interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, Schifferle discussed the signs that point to a phone scam and what people can do to avoid becoming victims of these imposters.
In 2013, the FTC received 2,000 complaints about IRS imposter scams. According to Schifferle, last year that number skyrocketed to 52,000. “That’s an increase of about 25 times,” she said. With more feds’ personal information exposed than ever before, those numbers are likely to climb.
“We have heard about scammers who are calling OPM breach victims, saying they’re from the FTC and that they have money for those victims. People should know that the FTC is not going to be calling OPM data breach victims; we’re not offering money or other prizes of any kind. So if you get this type of call, stop – don’t give any personal information out, just hang up,” Schifferle advised.
“Don’t give any…money over the phone – don’t wire money or put it on a prepaid debit card. Those are techniques that scammers use,” she said. These methods may seem obvious, but when scammers pose as government officials, threaten arrest or worse, it’s easy to become shaken.
Schifferle shared, “I got one of these calls myself, saying that someone was from the IRS, that I owed back taxes, that they’re filing suit against me. Sometimes they will threaten arrest or deportation. Sometimes they’ll say the sheriffs will be at your door within hours, and it really scares people.”
Schifferle reassured that the IRS, the FTC and other agencies are not going to call individuals. They won’t ask for prepaid cards or wire transfers, and they certainly won’t threaten arrest or deportation.
“It’s important to try to avoid the imposter scams, because the scammers are going to get even better now that they have more information about us,” Schifferle said. What can you do if you get one of these calls? Schifferle advised, “Don’t trust the caller ID – the phone numbers can be spoofed. Don’t trust the email addresses [and] don’t send money. Take your time if someone’s rushing you. Just hang up and don’t be afraid to be rude.”
If you’re uncertain of a call’s validity and feel especially bold, ask for a number to return the call later. If they give you a number, you can look up the number of the agency of which they claimed to be a part and compare them.
If you received one of these scam phone calls, be sure to share your knowledge with others who may be affected. “So many people are affected now, we need to get the word out to everyone about how to prevent these imposter scams,” Schifferle said.
In addition to avoiding phone scams, Schifferle urged the public to never send financial information over email. “Any legitimate financial institution will not ask you to email financial information,” she said. “They should have a secure site for you to enter [it].” Wi-Fi hotspots, emails, and phone calls are all unsafe ways to transfer funds – something that the government would never ask of the public.
If you believe your information was misused for these calls or any other sort of fraud, the resources at IdentityTheft.gov will walk you through the steps you need to protect your exposed information or recover it in the event of identity theft.