Take Control of the Call to Avoid Scams and Abuse

By: Susan Grant, CFA's Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy

This year’s CFA survey of complaints to state and local consumer agencies revealed lots of interesting information about unfair and deceptive practices that harm consumers. One thing in particular that jumped out at me was how some scammers, and even some “legitimate” businesses, try to control consumers and make them do their bidding by not letting them off the phone.

For example, there’s the story in the survey report about a disabled man in Massachusetts who wanted to buy a scooter for $1,999 to help him get around. The salesperson told him financing was available and arranged to have someone from the finance company call him. The woman who called said she was emailing the finance paperwork and told him to remain on the phone while it worked its way to his inbox. She then instructed him to skip to the last page and initial some boxes, which he did, and promised to email the completed contract to him. When he received it, he saw that there would be 57 monthly payments of $92 plus a $262 buyout at the end, making the total cost nearly $6,000. Alarmed, he called the finance company to ask what the interest rate was on the loan and learned, to his surprise, that that there was no interest because it was a lease, not a loan. He also noticed that his signature appeared on the contract, though he never signed it.

There’s also the story from San Francisco about people receiving pre-recorded calls in Mandarin that claimed to be “official communications” from the Chinese embassy and directed them to press a number to connect with an embassy employee. The person at that extension (an imposter, not a real embassy employee) said there was a message waiting for them and offered to open it while they stayed on the line. Of course they agreed. The message was that they were wanted for questioning about a major fraud investigation involving their families back in China. While still on the line, they were then connected to the “detective in charge of the investigation” (another imposter), who explained that they could get out if the situation by paying for “bail.” Sadly, people emptied their savings accounts, mortgaged their homes, or borrowed heavily to wire thousands of dollars overseas to the scammers.

Keeping consumers on the phone in this manner is a form of control. It prevents them from having time to think about what they’re doing, read what they’re agreeing to, or check with anyone else. Furthermore, giving consumers a series of instructions to follow is a way of “grooming” them to do what the caller ultimately wants them to do – agree to the deal, provide their personal information, or send money.

When the Massachusetts man jumped to the end of the document to initial the boxes while the woman from the finance company waited on the phone, he didn’t have a chance to look at the terms of the agreement. And the victims of the Chinese embassy scam were so intimidated by the end of the call that they didn’t question whether they should wire the money – something they probably wouldn’t have done if they had checked the credentials of the people who spoke to them.

In its survey response, the consumer agency in Cuyahoga County, Ohio reported an even more disturbing trend: some scammers are instructing consumers to stay on the phone while they go to the bank to withdraw the money or to stores to buy gift cards in order to make the payments. This essentially enables the crooks to hold their victims captive and tell them how to respond if a teller or cashier becomes suspicious and starts asking questions. It also prevents the consumers from checking the validity of the claims or demands the callers are making.

Here’s advice from CFA about how to protect yourself from these abusive control tactics:

  • Take charge of the conversation. It’s up to you to decide whether to speak with someone who calls you, especially if the call is unexpected. If you don’t want to talk to someone, say so and hang up!
  • Take a time out. If the call is about something you’re interested in or you think might be valid, ask the person to give you the information and tell them you’ll call back. If the caller won’t give you the time to look at something or verify what you’re being told, hang up!
  • Read the contract before you commit. If someone sends you a contract by email or text, don’t initial anything or click on “I agree” until you’ve read the whole thing carefully. If you’re not sure what something means or the agreement doesn’t match what you were told, ask questions and don’t seal the deal unless you’re satisfied with the answers.
  • Resist scare tactics. Many phone scams involve callers falsely claiming to be from law enforcement agencies. This is deliberately intended to strike terror in your heart and make you easier to control. Tell the caller you’ll get back to them and hang up! Then find the number of the agency the person claims to be from by looking online or through directory assistance, and call directly to ask if what you’ve been told is true. Don’t use the number the caller gives you or that shows on Caller ID, since it may just lead right back to a scammer.
  • Get advice. When something seems like it might not be quite right, ask for advice from your state or local consumer agency, your lawyer, your accountant, or someone else you trust.
  • Take care how you pay. Government agencies don’t tell people to pay money they owe by wiring it or buying gift cards. Neither do debt collectors, utilities, and other legitimate businesses. If you’re asked for payment by one of these methods, hang up! And if you realize you’ve been tricked into doing it, contact the money wiring service or the gift card issuer immediately to ask if anything can be done to stop the payment.

For more tips from our consumer complaint survey report about how to avoid fraud and other problems, click here.