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How to beat telephone scammers

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The simplest way to avoid telephone scams, writes tech columnist Peter Griffin, is to ditch your home phone.

I used to chuckle in wonder at people who were sucked in by phone scams. That was until someone I know, a smart, tech-savvy university student, was taken for the ultimate ride.

The call came about dinner time. The man on the line said he was from the family’s internet provider and needed to check an “IP issue” with the home computer. He ran my friend through all sorts of “tests” over the phone.

Two hours later, the testing and tinkering with computer settings had progressed to the point where the smooth talker had persuaded his target to transfer money to another bank account number given to him by the IT support guy, just to check that the internet protocols were “working correctly”. The money would be sent right back.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Needless to say, the several thousand dollars transferred went straight into a scammer’s bank account never to be seen again. My friend was devastated. The fake IT guy seemed so genuine. The bank was very understanding. It wasn’t able to reverse the transaction, but it refunded half the money.

This is how it happens. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, such con artists have the phone slammed down on them. In rare instances, they exploit human psychology and manage to work their dark art for profit.

The latest scam doing the rounds starts out the same way as the one my friend fell for, but gets much more complicated. The caller, posing as an employee of internet provider Spark, goes through the same routine, but tells the target he or she has been the victim of identity theft. The con artist then gets the “police cyber crime unit” on the line, and someone claiming to be a police officer takes over the call.

That person explains that the police want to set a trap to catch the identity thief. He persuades the victim to transfer or post a large sum of money, either electronically or to an address that might be in New Zealand or overseas.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that last month, the police and banks issued a warning that hundreds of people had been caught in the scam, some of them losing $10,000-$15,000.

The common denominator in these frauds is the home landline. The scammers are targeting the elderly and those whom the police describe as the “less-technologically minded”.

I recently dropped my landline. I’d begun working from home and was puzzled to find that the home phone rang six to eight times a day. There was the odd help-desk scammer, but most of them were robocalls – random recorded adverts, sometimes in a foreign language, or just dead air on the other end of the phone.

I pulled the plug, saving myself $20 a month as I went mobile-only. That’s not to say the mobile is immune to these issues. I get random calls on it, too. But a mobile phone is better equipped to identify numbers and screen calls. I can easily block calls and texts from dodgy numbers so they’ll never get through again.

Competitive flat-rate mobile calling plans now make doing without a landline a no-brainer. The barrier for some is giving up the familiar, chunky home-phone handset.

Spark’s Call Screen twin cordless phone system is an option for such people. It requires unknown callers to record their name before the phone rings. That eliminates robocalls, and scammers are usually reluctant to record their voice.

Call Screen comes with one-touch call blocking, too, which many home phones don’t support. At $140, the package is on the pricey side, but SuperGold Card members get a $30 discount.

The bottom line is: never give out financial details over the phone to a stranger and never transfer money to someone soliciting it in a phone call. Without an automated way to block robocalls and scammers, your frontline protection remains your own wits.

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.