Robert is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who provides business and technical consulting services for startups and small-to-medium companies.
I know a great deal about online scams. I provide computer security consulting. I've even developed an online course called "Staying Safe on the Internet."
But I almost fell for a remarkably sophisticated telephone scam.
It started with a phone call from someone who claimed to be calling from the Social Security Administration. She told me that the call was being recorded, and asked me for my full name, and the last four digits of my social security number (which I gave). She then gave me my birthdate and address, and asked if that was correct (it was).
She then told me that my social security number had been used to open 15 bank accounts holding over $700,000. She asked me if I had knowledge of those accounts, and gave me the last 4 digits of several account numbers.
I told her I did not have any knowledge of those accounts.
She asked if I had recently travelled in Texas (I have not).
At that point, she told me that she was going to transfer me to the criminal fraud investigation division, and asked me to hold.
Everything up to this point sounded very professional and above board.
I was then transferred to another line. A man answered and went through the same questions as the previous person. He again stated that our conversation was being recorded and could be used as evidence in any criminal proceedings, and asked if I consented (I did).
He then said that the records of the bank accounts had been found in Texas in connection with an ongoing investigation into money laundering and drug trafficking.
He noted that I have a good credit history and no criminal record, so he was inclined to think that this was a case of identity theft. He went on to say that all bank accounts tied to my social security number were about to be frozen.
He told me that an FBI agent would come to my house on Monday, but said that it might take a couple of weeks to get my personal bank accounts released. He said that I needed to immediately withdraw enough cash from my bank account to get me through a couple of weeks, and suggested the figure of $2,000.
He asked if there was a bank nearby (yes). He said that he would remain on the line while I went to the bank to withdraw the funds. And he did.
Once I had the cash (about 45 minutes later), he said that he would need to voucher it to verify that it had been withdrawn with his authorization.
At that point, he said I should go to any store and buy a prepaid debit card, putting all the cash on that card. He said to be sure I got a receipt, which I would need to give to the FBI agent on Monday. He said that I would be reimbursed for any costs associated with purchasing the card.
I want to emphasize that everything up to this point sounded very credible. He was polished and professional, and the jargon sounded right.
I did as he asked, while he stayed on the phone. At this point, the call had lasted about 90 minutes.
Now the hook was set. He asked me to schedule a time for the FBI to come to my home on Monday. We agreed on a time, and he once again verified my address.
And then he said, "Now to complete the vouchering process, I need to get the number from that prepaid debit card."
That was the point where I got nervous. I said that I had no proof of his identity, and I wasn't going to give him that information. I asked if I could call him back at his office.
He said that wouldn't work, because this was a recorded line used as part of the investigation.
I said, "OK... give me the case number and your name, and the office that you work out of. I will verify the information, and then you can call me back."
At that point, he started to push, but I refused to give him the card number without some proof.
He said OK... he would have someone from the FBI main office in Washington DC call me to verify that this was legitimate, and then he would call me back.
The Call From the FBI
Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a call. The caller ID was 202-324-3000, which I verified online was the FBI office in Washington DC. I was a little suspicious, because by this time it was 6:30 in Washington.
The woman who called gave me her name and told me she worked in the FBI Criminal Fraud division. But something seemed off. She was not nearly as polished as the others I had talked to. She was very vague about details. When I asked for a case number, she asked me why I needed that.
My suspicions were roused. Phone numbers are easy to spoof. I had no proof that she was calling from the FBI office.
I asked her for her name and extension, and I said I would call the FBI office and ask to be connected to her. She told me that she could not receive incoming calls at that number.
I said, "OK... give me any FBI number that I can verify online, and call to be connected to you."
At that point she became abusive. She said, "We are trying to help you. If you don't cooperate, you can be charged with money laundering and drug trafficking!"
I hung up.
A few minutes later, the "Investigator" called back and asked if everything was straightened out. I said no... I still needed a number of a government office that I could call myself to verify what he was telling me.
He came up with a number of excuses, and told me that if I didn't give him the card number for "vouchering" I might be subject to arrest.
This time, while we were talking, I got the number he was calling from, and did a reverse lookup online. The number came back as "not in service." I kept him on the phone while I used a different phone line to call that number. Sure enough, I got a "not in service" message.
Do federal investigators call from out-of-service numbers? I don't think so.
Finally I told him that I was not going to give him the card number, but I would show my receipt and the card to the FBI agent when I talked to him on Monday.
And at that point he hung up.
Why This Is Very Scary
They were able to spoof phone numbers.
There were at least three people involved in this scam. The first two, at least, were very polished and professional. They spent a total of about two hours on the phone with me.
They had a lot of information about me. They never asked me for any sensitive information, up until the point where the "investigator" asked me for the card number.
And because everything up to that point had been so credible, I came very, very close to giving it to him.
I've since made several phone calls to the Social Security Administration and the FBI. I never reached a person who could help me. The telephone menus end up directing me to a federal website where I can report suspected fraud. There are warnings on those sites about telephone scammers impersonating investigators, but there are no details.
I have a client who is a litigation attorney and spends a lot of his time suing various federal agencies. I've sent him an email asking what, if anything, I should do about this, but haven't yet heard back.
Con artists are good at getting you invested in the process, to the point where an unreasonable request sounds OK.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, stick to your guns. Do not give sensitive financial information to anyone unless you can positively verify their identity.
And remember that phone numbers can be spoofed!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Nicholson
Nilza Marie Santana-Castillo from Adventuring on September 19, 2019:
It's scary how detailed and how much effort into elaborate acting scammers are coming up with. Safe rule of thumb...hang up, look up the real number of the entity they're claiming to be, and then ask the entity to confirm they called you. Most companies have logs and can let you know when they did not call you and someone was spoofing their number. Getting off the phone with the scammer is key.
L.M. Hosler on September 14, 2019:
Thank you for putting this information out there. It sounds like they were very professional and convincing. I have received voice messages from someone calling from the IRS telling me I owed money and I needed to call them back right away or they were going to issue a warrant for me and I could possibly be arrested. Scared me a bit until I realized that the IRS would contact me by letter. I never called the number and I haven't been arrested (yet).