Let's start making noise about the billion-dollar phone scam industry

Jeff Bobo • Updated Nov 7, 2019 at 12:01 PM

It’s a glorious time in history to be a telephone/online con artist. 

From the perspective of an average citizen like myself, it appears that nobody in a position of authority at the federal level is paying attention to the billion-dollar industry of telephone scams.

It affects nearly every person in this country, yet we never hear anything about it from President Trump, our congressmen or our senators.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t solicited at least once per day with a scam robocall. If you’re like me, you get about 10 a day.

And every day someone falls for those scams.

I cover Hawkins County, which has a population approaching 60,000. I recently spent two months picking out police reports of either attempted phone scams or successful phone scams, which I’ve been keeping in a file.

Overall, it was 17 reported scams over the course of 60 days, and some of those were VERY successful. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars. 

If it’s happening at that level in one small rural Tennessee county, imagine what must be happening across this huge nation. 

Successful scammers by the numbers 

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sent a report to Congress titled “Protecting Older Consumers,” which stated that fraud victims reported losing nearly $1.6 billion in 2018.

About 45 percent of fraud reports filed in 2018 involved victims who were 60 and older. They filed 256,404 fraud reports with losses of nearly $400 million.

That FTC report also states that phone scams were the most lucrative against older consumers in terms of aggregate losses, and online scams were a distant second.

Gift cards became the payment of choice for scammers, but wire transfers were in the top spot for total dollars paid. You can read that report in its entirety by clicking a link in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net.

We’ve all been touched by scammers

A few years back, I received a call from a person claiming to be from the hospital billing department who said I owed $300 and I needed to pay it over the phone at that moment by credit card.

I told the lady I didn’t think I owed any money, but go ahead and mail me the invoice, and if it’s legitimate I’ll pay it.

She said, “That’s not the way we do things here.”

I said, “Well, that’s the way I do things.”

She said, “You’ve got to pay it now!”

And round and round we went. The more I resisted, the more aggressive and downright rude she became until I just hung up.

Never heard another thing about it, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized this must have been an attempted scam.

Hawkins County getting hit hard

On Tuesday, Linda Arrington from Church Hill called me and said she’d just gotten off the phone with a scammer who taunted her after she threatened to report him.

“They called and said $399.99 will be removed from my checking account in the morning for computer services,” Linda told me. “I don’t even have a computer. I called my bank, and they said they can stop it. But I’ve not given them (the scammers) any information.”

Her phone indicated that the call came from California.

Linda said, “First it was a recording, and then the recording said, we’re going to transfer you to this number. When they transferred me to that number, it was a real person who had an Asian accent. I told him, ‘I do not want your product, I have not asked for your product, I don’t care what you’re selling, I am not interested. Do not remove any money from my account.’ ”

The scammer told her, “It’s already being done.”

Linda said, “I said, ‘It’s not already being done.’ And I said, ‘Let me tell you something. I am reporting you to everyone that I know of who can do anything about what you’re doing.’ And he went, ‘Whaa, whaa, whaa’ — like a child, making fun of me for complaining. I don’t know where they’re getting my phone number, but I get at least six calls per day.”

Scammers are getting creative

Here are a few Hawkins County reports that were turned in this past July.

— A 76-year-old Rogersville woman told the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office he received a call from a person claiming to be from the Social Security office, who advised her to take all of her money out of the bank and place it on a “Safecard,” and the individual would make arrangements to get it in order to protect the woman’s account, which was going to be frozen. She figured out the scam before losing any money.

— An 80-year-old Mount Carmel man received a call from a person who said he’d received a refund on his Microsoft Word renewal, but they had accidentally deposited $1,800 more than he was due, and they needed him to get three $500 gift cards and one $300 gift card from Target and relay the numbers to the caller. The victim lost $1,800.

— A 37-year-old Church Hill woman was contacted by a person claiming to be from the IRS who said she was due a big tax refund, and all she had to do was pay the processing fees. She bought gift cards in the amount of $200 and $450 and gave the number to the “IRS agent.” When the man demanded another $500 in handling fees, she figured out she’d been had.

— A 41-year-old Mount Carmel man purchased a 1967 Ford Mustang on eBay for $29,000 and had the money wired to the seller’s bank. When the car wasn’t delivered, the victim contacted that bank and was notified he was probably a victim of fraud. There was a similar story for a 58-year-old Rogersville man who purchased a 1964 Ford mustang online for $14,000 from what turned out to be a bogus Seattle dealership.

— An 85-year-old Bulls Gap woman reported that she had sent $60 to a “sweepstakes audit adviser” so she could receive her $12 million prize, but the prize never arrived.

— A 75-year-old Rogersville man received a telephone offer to reduce his daughter’s student loan and gave the caller his daughter’s loan information and his banking information. He then contacted his daughter’s loan company, which said they hadn’t heard of the company that called him. Then he contacted his bank in time to prevent any funds from being stolen.

— A 69-year-old Rogersville man was contacted by a man who stated that U.S. marshals were coming to arrest him for Social Security fraud unless he purchased $3,000 worth of gift cards and gave the caller the number to avoid arrest. He didn’t realize it was a scam until the person called back and asked for another $2,000.

And the saddest example of all

A 78-year-old Mount Carmel woman sent a total of $58,701 in about 15 installments over the course of almost two weeks to a man with a thick accent who called and told her she needed to send processing fees for a Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes prize she’d won of $3 million in cash and a $75,000 Mercedes. After she emptied her own bank account, she attempted to withdraw $7,500 from her church’s bank account, but a bank teller became suspicious and contacted authorities.

Demand action from your legislators

Many of us have seen the “Jason Bourne” movies where folks in a room full of computers and video screens in the basement of the Pentagon can find you no matter where you are in the world. That technology is a decade old. Surely with the resources available to the U.S. government, it could figure out who is making these calls, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from our citizens, and go get them. 

The best way to get the attention of our elected officials is to contact them in mass numbers and make some noise. We should work together on this issue and make our state and federal representative aware that we want something done immediately about this phone/online scam problem.

Here is some of the contact information:

You can write a letter to Gov. Bill Lee, 1st Floor, State Capitol, Nashville, TN 37243; or call his office at (615) 741-2001; or you can leave him a message online at https://www.tn.gov/governor/contact-us.html.

You can send a message to Sen. Marsha Blackburn online at https://www.blackburn.senate.gov/contact_marsha.

You can send a message to Sen. Lamar Alexander  online at https://www.alexander.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email.

You can leave a comment for President Trump by calling (202) 456-1111 during business hours, or send a message to the White House online at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.



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