What a local scam attempt can tell us about increasingly savvy fraud calls
To hear the callers on the other end of my cell line tell it, I’m in trouble.
My Apple account has been compromised. My car warranty is out of date. I have bills that are being sent to collection. I just need to press a number, provide my username or share my Social Security digits.
Getting spam calls, sometimes several times a day, is annoying, but it can also be scary and even financially devastating.
According to the 2022 TrueCaller US Spam & Scam Report, roughly 68.4 million Americans lost $39.5 billion to phone scams in the past year, the highest numbers in the survey’s eight-year history.
We’ve all gotten used to spam calls — we receive an average 31 per month — and probably like to think they’re easy to spot at this point. But, scammers have gotten increasingly sophisticated, especially with the rise of caller ID spoofing, which allows callers to make it seem like a call is coming from a local number (neighbor spoofing) or a trusted business or government agency.
Last week, the wife of my newsroom colleague Tom Sepulveda received a call from their bank, Redwood Credit Union — at least that’s how the incoming number was listed.
The person was calling about suspicious transactions on her account. The caller just needed a username.
Tom’s wife was hesitant but also preoccupied, so she went along. He listed a few of the supposed suspicious charges and then said he’d send a link for her to reset the password on the account.
That’s when she balked, and the caller dropped off the line.
“It was professional the whole way through until the hanging up,” Sepulveda told me. “It’s pretty sophisticated, and I could 100% see how someone who’s being called, especially if they’re distracted, could fall for this. It nearly worked on us.”
Other local residents have recounted similar experiences in online neighborhood forums.
In these instances, hackers use usernames to claim the password is forgotten. They then try to gain access by telling the victim they’re helping them reset the password or sending a one-time passcode to read back, according to representatives I spoke to from Redwood Credit Union.
The good news is there are a number of alerts and systems in place to flag and prevent any transfers in these situations, especially if people are quick to alert the bank to a suspected hack.
“Very rarely do we have losses in that type of a fraud,” said Tony Hildesheim, chief operating officer at Redwood Credit Union.
The more prevalent and effective scam Hildesheim said he sees are members who have been tricked into making a transfer themselves. For instance, a member is convinced by a scammer posing as an authority that their account security has been breached and the compromised funds need to be moved to another, often cryptocurrency, account.
There’s much less that can be done to trace and recoup funds lost this way.
In general, Redwood Credit Union, like other banking institutions, has seen a definite uptick in all types of scamming attempts against its members over the past couple years, Hildesheim told me.
Given Redwood Credit Union’s origins and large footprint in the North Bay, local residents should be on high alert, but it’s hardly the only scam in town.
On Monday, the Petaluma Police Department warned of callers spoofing the agency’s number and posing as police representatives to get personal information. That’s not to mention the countless calls supposedly coming from Amazon or the IRS or Medicare.
The federal government has taken a number of steps in recent years, including in the past couple of months, to crack down on robocalls and number spoofing. California has made its own attempts, as well. But, that hasn’t stopped the barrage.
There are several factors that make regulation and enforcement difficult.
Technological advancements have enabled the ever-evolving spread of spam and scam calling. The legal and regulatory systems have failed to keep up.
Plus, there’s political pressure that special interests exert to prevent a crackdown on robocalling, since it’s a moneymaker for telemarketing operations and not just con artists. Federal lobbyists for less regulation outnumber consumer groups’ lobbyists on the other side by 100 to 1, per an Insider analysis.
Consumer advocates are pushing oversight agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, to put more pressure to act on providers who profit from spam calls — especially voice over internet calling providers that typically transfer these often foreign-originating calls through to U.S. phone systems but also all the telephone service providers that benefit through being in the call path of a robocall.
In the meantime, the best thing consumers can do is know how to protect themselves.
First and foremost, never hesitate to hang up and call the banking institution or agency back yourself. This is the best step anyone can take. Never give out personal information, like your credit card number, username, password or mother’s maiden name in response to an unexpected or any incoming call.
Always keep in mind that a local number doesn’t mean a local caller anymore.
Remember, too, that legitimate organizations will not ask for payment with a gift card or for you to make transfers into a cryptocurrency account.
If you think you’ve been duped, don’t waste a minute: Contact your bank as soon as possible.
“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.
“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat
Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.