Answering a call from an unknown number could be a risky business. You see, although it could just be from a friend with their caller ID masked, sometimes, reports suggest, such calls may be a lot more sinister. They can also catch people unawares – like this new phenomenon that’s supposed to have been plaguing residents across the United States.
Often when we pick up an unwanted call, it’s a telemarketer on the end of the line, hunting a sale. Obviously, this can be irritating, but it’s clearly not life-threatening. However, in recent times police in Virginia and several other states have issued a warning about a criminal group making unwanted – and potentially damaging – calls.
Interestingly, phone scams are still on the rise despite more and more people choosing to transact online. One poll found that 11 percent of American adults lost money through a phone scam in 2015 alone. The average loss per victim was, furthermore, a whopping $274, with many losing much more than that.
Now what’s important to remember is that the goal of most scammers is to steal your personal information. Do this, and they can pretend to be you in order to access more sensitive stuff – like bank accounts. It’s for this reason that many scammers target business owners with publicly listed information.
Additionally, scammers focus on the elderly, who are sometimes naive to the more sinister workings of modern criminals. An elderly person will also often have a nest egg of cash built up for retirement, and unfortunately this makes them very attractive to con artists.
So what’s new with this recently reported scam? Well, for starters, the alleged scheme is much simpler than previous ones. It’s also supposed to be worryingly effective. People are called by an unknown number, and if an individual then answers, they are greeted with four innocuous words: “can you hear me?”
Under those circumstances, many people would automatically say “yes.” However, according to police, this is exactly what the scammers want to hear. Why? Because the crooks, say reports, record your affirmative response and then use it as part of a strategy to steal your identity.
It’s worth noting that scammers can, so we’re told, use your recorded “yes” to authorize credit card bill charges. And potentially this means they could rack up thousands of dollars in debt, all in your name. Reports suggest that the fraudsters may, furthermore, record everything you say and then edit it to make it sound as if you approved a major purchase.
Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America told CBS News, “You say ‘yes,’ it gets recorded and they say you have agreed to something… I know that people think it’s impolite to hang up, but it’s a good strategy.” It’s a natural response to answer the questions, but of course, ignoring the call is your best bet.
Officer Jo Ann Hughes of the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia reckons that a recognizable code would make a person more receptive to a scammer. “Usually [the call] has a familiar area code… That kind of warms you up,” she told WTKR-TV. Plus, it will make people more likely to stay on the line.
Allegedly, this scam has been around for a little while, having surfaced in places like Pittsburgh before reaching Virginia. In the Pennsylvania example, the calls were slightly different, though. According to reports, scammers would ask, “Are you the homeowner?” or “Do you pay the bills,” but the aim was still the same.
Meanwhile, officer Hughes added, “A lot of times, victims do not want to come forward because they are embarrassed. They feel like, ‘It was my fault. I should have known better,’ and they are just embarrassed by it all together. So we do not get a whole lot of reports, unfortunately.”
Regrettably, the scam has now also, reports suggest, spread as far as the U.K. CPR Call Blocker, a U.K.-based nuisance call blocking company, has in fact already sent out a warning about the fraudulent scheme and what to do about it. Again, these callers will, we’re told, likely use fake caller IDs that show the call as seemingly being made from a local area.
Kris Hicks from CPR Call Blocker cautioned, “Victims in the U.S. have received a phone call from a local area code, and the other person on the other end of the line introduces themselves and their business… And if you do pick up, and they instantly start asking, ‘Can you hear me?’, don’t say anything and hang up.”
Hicks continued her warning by saying, “It’s fishy, don’t fall into the trap. In our experience of working across the U.S. and U.K., scams spread quickly across the pond… We have no doubt that fraudsters operating in the U.K. will soon start using these tactics.”
All that being said, this is not the first phone scam alleged to have tricked people out of money or into offering up their personal information. For instance, another scam reported in 2017 saw criminals pretend to be working for U.S. Immigration. Indeed, they altered their caller ID to make it appear like the official Department of Homeland Security hotline number.
The Inspector General’s office at the Department of Homeland Security said, “The scammers demand to obtain or verify personally identifiable information from their victims through various tactics, including by telling individuals that they are the victims of identity theft.”
Sadly, authorities say that they might never know the full extent of this scam’s damage. Bear in mind that immigrants would be especially reluctant to report this scam because of fears that they could become embroiled in immigration enforcement matters. This means that many victims may suffer in silence.
However, several scams have also targeted new, legal immigrants. Joanne Talbot of USCIS said, “The scammer poses as a USCIS official and requests personal information… [Then it] identifies supposed issues in the recipient’s immigration records and asks for payment to correct these records.”
In conclusion, it’s important to know what to do if you’re caught out by a phone scammer. First, call your bank and tell the people there what’s happened so that they can safeguard your accounts. Then, make sure to contact your local authority or fraud prevention scheme. And remember: don’t be embarrassed, as your report could help many others.
But a picking up the phone isn’t the only way strangers can pester you at home. There’s a signal you can spot in the street that may indicate a criminal is targeting your house. That’s right: if you notice that part of your address is painted on the curb directly outside, then you may have a problem to deal with.
It’s not exactly clear whereabouts in the U.S. the problem first appeared. After all, residents from as far afield as California and Georgia complained of being targeted way back in 2012. Now, however, police are warning communities all over the country about this growing concern. The problem is centered around house numbers being painted on the curbs outside people’s homes – and, more worryingly, what happens after this has been done.
The matter is in fact causing such widespread anxiety that it has now found its way onto message boards and forums online. One commenter said, “Today I came home early, as I am not feeling too well, and noticed all houses except [for a] few have their house number painted [on the curb].”
The commenter from California seemed to think this somewhat odd, adding, “Every house has [its] number illuminated at night so anyone that [would] need to find [their] house can easily do it.” And looking at it, the person decided that it was strange enough to appear suspicious.
As it turns out, the commenter may well have been right, too. In essence, the new curb painting spree is part of a common scam making the rounds. Let’s break down what happens. Okay, so if you find that numbers have been freshly painted onto the curb in front of your house, sometime soon someone could be knocking at your door.
The scam is alarmingly simple and has already fooled many into parting with money on their doorsteps. It starts with the scammer posting a flyer through your door, stating that they are in the area to carry out curb painting. The flyer goes on to say that the person will return to paint your house number – unless you tape the flyer to the curb outside your property.
In reality, though, the painting itself is nothing more than a bit of a nuisance. The problem – indeed, the scam itself – only really kicks in after your house number has been daubed on the curb. You see, once the number is down, the scammers will arrive and demand payment for the “service” they have provided.
Obviously, no one is keen to pay for a service that they have not asked for. Unfortunately, though, the scammers frequently pretend to be a “community service” or some sort of official organization. And as a result, people all too often end up paying out just to settle the issue.
That’s because, in a further push to persuade residents into paying up, scammers will post a bill through each of their letterboxes. Subsequently, the con artists will return to the given addresses to demand payment for the painting, pressuring residents into handing over money.
Some residents will, moreover, follow the instructions on the flyers and leave money in their letterboxes. Chief Gielink from the Mentor-on-the-Lake Police Department said, “This week they are going around to houses that didn’t leave any money and telling them they want money for what they did.”
Many police departments across the country have therefore been quick to explain that homeowners should never feel like they have to pay for a service that they didn’t request. Chief Gielink said, “We are here to make sure people know they have no obligation to pay for this.”
As an illustration of the scam’s growing influence, one area actually issued a warning to locals through its Facebook page. The city of Alpharetta, Georgia, posted an image of a flyer that residents had been receiving. It also outlined how the flyer was advertising on false pretenses.
The city highlighted the fact that the flyer contains no company name or phone number. Notably, the only real piece of information on it states, “[Curb painting] is an important service as the police, fire department, and paramedics look at the curbs first for your address.”
The city of Alpharetta was, however, quick to debunk this claim. A spokesperson wrote, “Having your address numbers painted on the curb in front of your house is completely unnecessary.” They also went on to assert that first responders look for the house number elsewhere.
Now it’s important to remember that curb painting can be a legitimate business. Companies carrying out such a service will, however, always seek a homeowner’s consent before undertaking any painting work. The jobs can be lucrative, by the way, with speedy painters potentially able to earn $200 a day.
Writing on personal finance website The Penny Hoarder, one entrepreneur recommended curb painting as a good way to make cash. “Any pizza delivery driver will tell you that people regularly get their pizza late because the driver can’t see their address,” he wrote. “That’s your sales pitch.”
It ought to be remembered that bona fide curb painting companies need to jump through some hoops in order to begin trading. In addition to having significant public liability insurance – upwards of $100,000 is normal – they each need a permit and a surety bond. Significantly, they have to provide customers with proper contact information, too.
Meanwhile, consumers should be aware that the curb painting scam is not the only one of its kind. From time to time, communities are plagued by companies offering to do yard work and other chores in exchange for cash. And unfortunately, they may use the same tactics as the curb painter con artists.
One community in Springfield, Missouri, fell foul of this related scam. In short, a company was going around people’s houses offering services such as tree trimming and lawn care. Local resident Julie Davis was one of its victims. “I just paid him and wanted it done,” she lamented. “I have no recourse once I hand cash over to somebody.”
Again, the company offered no contact information other than an email address. And when Davis then wrote to complain about the poor job that had been done, she received nothing but abuse. The Springfield resident said, “He cursed at me. He wrote me horrible emails. He was just a jerk to me.”
Having followed the instructions and taped an envelope containing cash to her door, Davis realized all too late that it was a scam. “I should have at least gone out and watched him do it, stayed with him and approved it, paid him afterward,” she said. “But I didn’t. I paid him ahead of the job. It was dumb on my part.”