I’ve received a number of critical comments and emails about my Feb. 1 blog, New Tech Scam Warning Shows How Vulnerable We Are, and I have to say they are largely deserved. After a quick reread, it’s pretty clear that I and my cited sources weren’t very clear about how the so-called “Can you hear me now?” telephone scam works. As one reader put it: “Vague story; so answering ‘Yes’ leads to potential theft?”
Ironically, the short answer is “Yes.” But to understand why takes some explaining. Simply put, the scam works like this: “A fraudster calls pretending to be from a home security agency or cruise line, or something else for sale. Then, they use phrases like ‘Are you the lady of the house?’ or ‘Do you pay the household telephone bills?’ Once they get that recorded answer ‘Yes,’ they will go through the sales pitch and explain that the unsuspecting victim has already agreed to pay for the product or service. Scammers will play back a person’s verbal confirmation and threaten to take legal action if they try to deny the charges.”
Here’s the part that I glossed over: While folks like you or me would most likely tell them where to go, apparently some people, especially older folks, are more easily intimidated, and do get pressured into buying: that is, buying with a credit card or even a direct deposit from their bank account. And once the bad guys get that info, they can use it to run up any purchases they want. So, again, the “con” is to get people to give up their credit card or bank account information—not simply to say the words “Yes.”
Another reader wrote that Snopes.com reported finding “no evidence” that this con actually exists. In fact, Snopes researcher Kim LaCapria posted an updated story on Jan. 31 concluding that the scam is “unproven,”
At first glance, the warning sounded reasonably valid: major news outlets covered it, and a Better Business Bureau satellite office reported the scam as well. But a closer examination revealed some questionable elements… …Primarily, we haven’t yet been able to identify any scenario under which a scammer could authorize charges in another person’s name simply by possessing a voice recording of that person saying ‘Yes,’ without also already possessing a good deal of personal and account information for that person, and without being able to reproduce any other form of verbal response from that person,” she wrote.
“Moreover, even if such a scenario existed, it’s hard to imagine why scammers would need to utilize an actual audio recording of the victim’s repeating the word ‘Yes’ rather than simply providing that response themselves…. …[What’s more,] In all the news reports we found, interviewees merely reported having been asked the common question (‘Can you hear me?’) but did not aver that they themselves had fallen prey to scammers:”
As you can see, LaCapria completely missed the point of the scam (as did, sadly, many of the folks who read my original story). In addition, the “Can you hear me?” scam has been very widely reported.
A Google search comes up with 1.2 million results, including news outlets across the country. Here’s a sampling of reports on complaints to Better Business Bureaus:
* KOTA TV in Rapid City, South Dakota: “The Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Nebraska, South Dakota, The Kansas Plains and Southwest Iowa is warning that hundreds of consumers are now reporting the phone scam via BBB Scam Tracker.”
* The Detroit Free Press: “The sad thing is that it can be really effective in trapping the consumer into paying for something they’re not getting the benefit of,” said Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan. “62 consumers in Michigan have reported complaints about ‘Can You Hear Me?’ calls in the past few days. The Michigan Attorney General’s Office reports two complaints.”
* News5, Cleveland: “Ohio residents are now becoming victim to a nationwide ‘Can you hear me?’ scam. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Monday that several Ohioans have reported the suspicious calls since Friday.”
* CBS46 ATLANTA: “The BBB’s scam tracker page has been swamped with complaints about a new telemarketing swindle. You get a call from someone who asks, ‘Can you hear me?’ Your obvious response would be ‘Yes.’ But answering that way to the scammers could open you up to an agreement for a costly vacation package.”
* Kiss FM 102.5 Lubbock, TX: DJ Boleo: “I was reading an article the other day about the ‘Can you hear me now?’ scam, and I figured this was only going on in the bigger cities. Little did I know that Lubbock resident that I know almost fell victim to this scam.”
* Palm Beach Post: “For the last few days of January, more than half of the reports to BBB Scam Tracker were about this one scam. Consumers reported the calls related to a variety of offerings, from vacation packages to cruises to warranties and other big ticket items.”
The takeaway here is that the “Can you hear me now?” scam seems to be a widespread “tech” con, in the sense that it gets people to give up credit card and/or account information that can be used to run up unauthorized online charges.
So don’t let your clients fall prey. And my apologies for not being more clear the first time around.