Local phone scams abound

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Jim Leute
Monday, March 3, 2014

JANESVILLE—In the last few weeks, Bill has received dozens of calls from an outfit that appears as “card services” on his caller ID.

Al and his wife have received calls from strange area codes that hang up after just one ring.

The phone at yet another Gazette reader's home rang from a Washington, D.C., area code with a message that back taxes are owed, charges are pending and federal marshals will appear if $750 is not paid up immediately.

All are fraudulent calls and examples of the scams that easily elevated telemarketing to the top of the state's list of consumer complaints reported in 2013.

“The amount of fraud that comes at consumers through the telephone is incredible,” said Sandy Chalmers, division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“Technology has made it very easy and cheap for criminals to call you from anywhere in the world.”

Chalmers said the calls from “card services” were prevalent two or three years ago, before the Federal Trade Commission was successful in shutting down many of the operations.

The calls, which she said have reemerged in recent weeks, pitch offers to lower credit card interest rates but often result in new credit card charges and higher interest rates.

“These scams are always evolving,” Chalmers said. “One constant is that they feature a pitch designed to spur someone into quick action.

“A lower credit card interest rate? Who wouldn't want that?

“A one-ring call and a hang-up? You want to know who called, so you call back and get charged for an international call.”

Chalmers said other calls have been centered on payments of utility or other bills.

Many of them, she said, come from outside of the United States.

“If they are calling you from Guyana, the Ukraine or Indonesia, they don't care if you're on a no call list,” she said.

Chalmers' best advice is to not answer the call if a caller ID shows an unfamiliar number. If the call is answered, quickly hang up on a recording or a message that just doesn't seem right, she said.

“Whatever you do, don't press any keys if it's a recording,” she said. “That just identifies you as a live account, and that's valuable in itself to scammers because they can then sell your number around the world.”

Chalmers said telemarketing topped the state's consumer complaint list for the 11th consecutive year. It tallied nearly twice as many complaints as the second-ranked category, landlord/tenant relations.

Most of the telemarketing complaints involved autodialing scams targeting seniors, she said.

“Wisconsin seniors faced a number of phone-based scams in 2013, and many of the calls they received offered well-crafted, attractive pitches—particularly for seniors with medical needs,” Chalmers said.

“We received a high volume of complaints involving robocalls that fraudulently pitched medical alert devices and different types of assistance programs for senior citizens.”

The agency has worked with state and federal partners to take action against the groups behind some of the scams, she said.

In addition to not answering unfamiliar calls or hanging up on suspected scammers, Chalmers said people should report issues to her department.

She said the department also has a guide that contains nearly 50 pages of information to help Wisconsin seniors through difficult consumer issues or to help them identify scams.

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