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Lessons learned from a phone scam

Last week, my cell phone started ringing incessantly. By “incessantly,” I mean every two seconds. The numbers that came through were not 10-digit numbers, but sometimes 15-to-20 digits. When I answered, the call disconnected.

I called Verizon and was told there was nothing they could do about it, that a machine was likely dialing my number and that it would take 24-hours for them to get the real 10-digit number behind the calls rather than the fake numbers showing up on my phone. (Verizon can only block 10-digit numbers.)

I had a gut feeling that a scam was underway but Verizon assured me that no one could hack into my phone just by dialing it incessantly. After three calls with Verizon, I turned my phone to silent and hoped that the calls would eventually stop.

I then got a call from a woman named “Maria” who claimed that she was from Verizon and apologized for the technical difficulties. She asked me to turn off my phone. I asked her for her name again and a call back number. When she hesitated in giving me the call back number, my suspicions that she was a scammer were solidified.

I could not imagine what would happen if I turned my phone off but I knew I did not want to do what “Maria” asked. I kept my phone on until the battery drained from all of the calls and it shut off.

I had been checking my bank accounts periodically online throughout the day. For some reason, I had hunch that the scam was going to be on one of my accounts. I have the Bank of America app on my phone and, although Verizon assured me that no one could get that information simply by repeatedly calling me, I still felt uneasy.

My worst fears were realized when I could not log in to my online account. I immediately called Bank of America’s customer service department, who changed all of my passwords and logins. I told them about the phone calls but they had no idea what effect, if any, those calls could have on my accounts.

The next day I got a call from the Bank of America’s fraud department, asking about a wire transfer that went through the day before and a second request that was pending. I realized then that the thieves had gotten thousands of dollars out of my account.

The fraud representative told me that they tried to call me the day before but that the calls kept going immediately to my voicemail. They also claimed to have sent me an alert via email. I never received that email and, on the advice of the representative, I immediately changed my email password.

It was at this point that the scam became clearer. The thieves used a machine to call my phone so that Bank of America could not get through to me. They even left voicemails to clog up my mailbox.

I am still not clear on how they intercepted the alert emails — whether they had hacked into my personal account or whether they had intercepted them on Bank of America’s side.

What is most unnerving is that I was powerless to stop this. I knew something was underfoot, but did not know what to do to protect myself. Fortunately, Bank of America stopped the second wire transfer and refunded me in full for the first. They have been wonderful through this whole process.

The fraud representative told me that I did everything that I could do in the circumstances. I trusted my gut and immediately changed all of my passwords and I alerted Bank of America. Afterward, I also filed a fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies.

The representative told me that they had the name and information of the individual to whom the funds were wired in New York. He said that this was an overseas operation in which someone in the U.S. provides their information, receives the funds via the wire transfer and then sends a portion overseas. Often, the authorities go after the person stateside because they have no way of finding the individual overseas. The representative assured me that the bank would fight to get its money back.

I share all of this because it was a really scary, violating experience. My information is now out there. I have come to learn that once it is out there, it gets sold and resold among thieves. It did not seem like anyone from Verizon or Bank of America had heard of this scheme or knew what to make of the incessant calls.

So, let this be a warning. If you get these calls, check your accounts immediately and call your banks. Ask for the fraud department, not just the customer service department.

I know without doubt thieves will continue to find new ways to steal our identities and money. The best way to protect yourself is to routinely change passwords, never use the same password for multiple accounts, keep security software up-to-date, only access sensitive accounts from computers you know and trust and stay vigilant of your online accounts.

4 comments

  1. Ms. Mann:
    This is a truly helpful article. Thank you so much. I will be passing the article along to others.

  2. “I know without doubt thieves will continue to find new ways to steal our identities and money. The best way to protect yourself is to routinely change passwords, never use the same password for multiple accounts, keep security software up-to-date, only access sensitive accounts from computers you know and trust and stay vigilant of your online accounts.”

    — I agree. I’ve read of a similar advice posted at this consumer protection website called http://www.callercenter.com and that’s what I did. Scammers prey on potential victims all the time and when you keep updating your information, there’s no way they can keep up.

  3. I got this text message: “Dear Walmart shopper, Congratulations you have just won a $1000 Walmart Gift Card. Click here to claim your gift…”

    Walmart posted this to its website: Walmart Gift Card Text Message Scams
    March 9, 2012 — There has been a sudden increase in scam text messages referring people to a site where they can “claim a Walmart Gift Card” by entering certain private personal information. These attacks that take place through SMS text message technologies to personal mobile phones are scams and are in no way sponsored by or affiliated with Walmart.

    …just another tip!

  4. I hope you moved your accounts to a bank with more Internet security. It’s possible the thieves got the information by hacking into them. It seems to me I heard a news report to that effect.