There's an app for that? Scammers figure out how to 'spoof' local, business phone numbers
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — When Park Rapids, Minn., woman received a call a few weeks ago, she answered, not thinking much of it. The caller ID had said it was Essentia Health, after all, where Stephanie Kern and her family have gone before.
On the other end, an automated response told Kern she was eligible for a reduction in her bill due to an accounting error. Press one if interested.
At this point Kern grew suspicious, unaware of any debt she owed to Essentia, but she pressed one anyway. The call was from Essentia, after all.
Kern then recalls hearing someone typing on the other end, and then a man saying, "It looks like you have been making payments with your credit card for the past six months and have even tried paying a little more sometimes."
Kern said she had not been paying off any debt, and she didn't have a credit card.
"You mean you don't have a Visa, MasterCard, (etc.)," the man asked.
"No. I don't," said Kern.
Click. The man hung up.
So Kern redialed the number on her caller ID, and a receptionist at Essentia Health answered on the other end. She was then told she did not have an outstanding balance, which she already knew.
The man on the phone had been a scammer.
But how had the man showed up on Kern's caller ID as Essentia Health? Well, it's called "caller ID spoofing," and, yeah, there's an app for that.
Scammers have been doing this with emails for years and have now figured out how to spoof caller ID's, thanks to smartphone technology.
There are a number of apps that allow anyone to "spoof" caller ID's, changing their number so it shows up as a different number — even a business — on someone's caller ID.
"(Using these apps) is an extremely easy process," said Collin Kremeier, supervisor of care with Otter Tail Power Company, another area business that scammers are appearing to call from.
(It is important to note this is how scammers are appearing to call from local phone numbers — not just businesses. Once they have your phone number, all they have to do is match the area code — and possibly prefix — with a fake phone number. So just because the number looks familiar, does not mean the person on the other end is really a relative in dire need of $5,000 in iTunes gift cards.)
One of the more popular "spoofing" apps is called SpoofCard, which claims to be "trusted by over 4 million users" like The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and USA Today.
SpoofCard is a simple blue screen that has a place to put an actual phone number and then a place for the number the scammer wants to show up as on someone's caller ID. There are even options to change the caller's voice, add background noise, record the call or send the call straight to voicemail.
But here's the kicker: making these calls through the app costs the scammer money by way of a "credit" system. A call costs one "credit" per minute, and the caller has to purchase these credits in packages: 45 credits for $9.95, 100 credits for $19.95, 160 credits for $29.95, and so on.
The cost may be the reason why these scammers have switched their tactics away from berating people to simply hanging up the moment the person on the other end starts asking questions.
While no one likes to waste their time talking to a scammer, if this does happen to you, and you figure it out before they hang up, just remember: your time is their money — the longer you keep them on the line and lure them along, making them think you're going to fall for this scam (without giving them any of your personal information, of course), the more money it costs them. Just one small way to fight back against this new tactic.
If you aren't sure if the call is coming from a scammer or a legitimate business, Kremeier has a few tips.
Firstly, any legitimate business should already have your personal information, you should never need to supply it over the phone.
"We would never contact a customer and ask them to supply personal account information," Kremeier said. "We have their information."
A legitimate business would also send account balance information by mail (or email if you have chosen to go paperless) before calling about an overdue bill.
"If a customer has never gotten one (a notification by mail)," any call about an overdue balance is fake, Kremeier said.
Another red flag is if the caller is asking you to pay in a certain (usually very short) amount of time and in a specific way, like prepaid itunes or purchase cards. Scammers use this short time frame to fluster their victims, who may then go along with a scam, fearing their utilities will be shut off in 30 minutes, for example.
Finally, if you're not sure if a call is legit, just hang up. Look for a bill with the business's phone number and call that number to double check. It never hurts to double — triple — check, even if you really think that "relative" on the other end could be in jail in California.