When a Stranger Calls
~ By Gerald Rome, Colorado Securities Commissioner ~
Every year around Halloween, my mind turns to the now classic horror films of the 1970s and 80s. Among the scariest scenes in such films as Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the aptly named When a Stranger Calls are the moments when the terrified teenager, home alone, hears the phone ring. Few things bring such an icy chill as the anticipation of the inevitable horror that follows one such call.
In the real world, occurrences like this are for the most part fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that the person on the other end of an “unknown number” call isn’t a threat. These days it is estimated that 1 in 2,200 phone calls is a fraud attempt. Despite the many warnings we receive about such calls, scam artists are still reaping millions of dollars from phone scams. Recent studies have shed new light on how, despite all the warnings, these calls can still lead to a true nightmare for many people.
It starts with an autodial. Many fraudsters will dial thousands of numbers in order to find out which ones lead to a home phone. Once you say “Hello?” – even if it’s dead air or a recording on the other end – they know they’ve got a potential victim. The next step is simply to get you to take the bait. If you answer a call from someone you don’t know, you may think you are only going to chat with him or her for a few minutes, perhaps find out what he wants, and disconnect. Unfortunately, if you engage in a conversation with a professional fraudster, he is going to use those few minutes to start building a plan for how to get your money. The more information you provide, even if it seems benign, the more tools you are providing for the scam. Fraudsters who use investment opportunities as bait are particularly adept at finding the emotional or psychological areas where you are most vulnerable: do you get excited at the prospect of vast returns and little risk? Are you easily panicked at the thought of losing out on a good deal? The scam may not happen the first time you talk to this person, but eventually he or she may be able to convince you, and that’s a very scary prospect.
So, as always, here’s the lesson. The first step is to sign up for the national and state “Do Not Call” lists. This won’t get rid of all the calls, but may help cut down on the volume. Next, if you receive a call and don’t recognize the number, either don’t answer at all, or pick up the phone and simply wait in silence until the other caller disconnects – the jury is still out on what works best to keep your name off of “home number” lists. If you do answer an unknown call, remember: NEVER give out your personal or financial information to someone who called you, and to be even safer, JUST HANG UP. Finally, if you think you’ve been the target of a fraud or phishing call, contact us at the Division of Securities at 303-894-2320.
Remember, not every stranger who calls will be a boogeyman, but when it comes to your financial health it’s always better to be safe than sorry!