Don’t get hung up on phone scams — Avoid falling victims to cyber crime

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Answering her phone Friday afternoon, Mary Toutonghi, of Soldotna, was understandably surprised to be informed she had won $5 million. She wasn’t, however, nearly as thrilled as the caller hoped she would be. Instead of following his instructions and calling the number she was given — likely in an effort to mine all manner of personal information — she was motivated to make a different phone call, to report what immediately struck her as a scam.

Problem was, not only did she not know who was calling and trying to scam her, she didn’t know how to go about reporting it.

“I was trying to figure out, who should I call? This should be reported to somebody, I just don’t know who,” she said.

The call was to her home phone, from a man who identified himself as Mike. He said he was calling from within the U.S., but his accent, to Toutonghi’s ear, placed him elsewhere. Toutonghi is a speech therapist, a career that has put her in contact with people of all manner of nationalities.

“I’d worked with quite a few kids from the East Indies in Seattle, so I recognized his accent as Jamaican, but he said, ‘Oh, well, we’re here in Las Vegas,’” Toutonghi said.

He told her she’d won $5 million. To receive it, she should call this phone number, give them this confirmation number and pin number, “And give them your information and they’ll take care of you,” she said.

He didn’t offer much explanation of how her good luck had come about. Only a vague statement to the effect of, “Have you heard of Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes?” He did not say, Toutonghi noticed, anything as definitive as he was with Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, or the contest was part of Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

“I think you’re supposed to be so excited you miss that part,” she said.

The call was clearly a scam, Toutonghi thought. If she’d called the number, they’d probably ask her for sensitive personal and financial information — name, birthdate, Social Security Number, bank account, credit cards, etc. She wasn’t about to do that, but what if someone else got a similar call and didn’t realize it was fake? “Mike” had mentioned something about Toutonghi being “up in Alaska,” making her wonder if they were perhaps targeting Alaskans, and senior citizens, at that.

“The thing that concerns me is that someone could be vulnerable. The guy had mentioned something about me being up in Alaska, so I thought maybe they were targeting this state. But it just seems like it would be good for people to be made aware that they should steer clear. We need constant awareness,” she said.

She wanted to report the caller, but wasn’t sure how to go about doing so.

“I didn’t want to call the number, because I didn’t know what I was in for. So I tried to figure out who to call, and I couldn’t,” she said.

She tried the local senior center and Alaska State Troopers office and didn’t get a response. She told a friend about the call, who had heard of other people in the area receiving scam calls. In one case the caller kept at it throughout the day, Toutonghi said.

“The people got a hold of their cellphone, as well, and would call them on both phones at the same time and hassle them about it,” Toutonghi said.

Her friend looked up the number she was given, and the area code placed it in Jamaica.

“So it could have involved quite a bit of money if I were being charged by the minute to make the call,” she said.

Toutonghi called Soldotna Police, who created a case number for suspicious circumstances regarding the incident. But local police aren’t equipped to do much beyond that.

“These are scam artists. They are all over the country, all over the world. And so it’s very hard to investigate those crimes,” said Sgt. Stace Escott.

“It never hurts to call the police,” he said, so that the department has a record of these instances and will know if there’s a rash of them in the area. They aren’t common, he said, but they do happen.

“There are not a whole lot of those here in Soldotna, although it does happen occasionally. In this case they found out the caller was from Jamaica. Unfortunately for Soldotna Police, there isn’t a whole lot we can do about a call coming from Jamaica,” he said.

But there is something residents can do to protect themselves — be a devotee to the age-old advice of, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“I think the initial thing to do is hang up,” he said. “Don’t play victim, don’t give them any information, don’t talk to them.”

Toutonghi wanted to take it further. Out of other ideas, she glanced down at her phone book and saw an ad for a local attorney. She called and the attorney, Joe Ray Skrha, recommended that she call the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Anchorage.

“They were very interested and they wanted to know all the numbers I had been given, the name of the person, and my phone number,” she said.

The FBI representative she spoke to told her that, sometimes in these situations, victims get multiple calls from the scammer trying to harass them into participating, as many as 40 to 50 calls a day. Indeed, while Toutonghi was on the phone, the Jamaica number flashed on her caller ID again.

“I’m hoping I don’t hear from him again, because I don’t know exactly what I would do if they began hassling me,” she said.

If that happens, Sgt. Escott said that the receiver of the calls should contact their phone service provider to block the number or numbers placing the calls. Luckily, Toutonghi hadn’t received more than those two calls Friday afternoon.

The FBI told Toutonghi that the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for investigating phone scams such as this, particularly if a call is being placed in violation of the Do Not Call List — a registry managed by the FTC where people can opt out of receiving telemarketer calls. The FBI deals with Internet-based scams, such as email fraud, whereas the FTC investigates fraudulent telemarketer phone calls.

Toutonghi called the FTC and reported the incident there, as well. While she doesn’t expect that “Mike” and his cohorts are going to be brought to justice, she at least is satisfied that she did her part to hopefully help others be a little better protected.

“I think it’s important that these things get reported, because how else can they look these things up and know if a lot of it is going on?” she said.

That’s as far as she wants to take it. Her supposed good fortune and millions of dollars aren’t worth any more of her time.

“I’m worn out,” she said. 

Suspicious call? Here’s what to do:

  • Be preventative by registering your phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry through the Federal Trade Commission. For those with Internet access, visit www.donotcall.gov. To register by phone, call 888-382-1222. If you think you’ve already registered but don’t remember for sure, you can check a number at the website or over the phone. As of 2008, when the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007 went into effect, any number placed on the Do Not Call Registry is permanent, unless the person with that number submits a request to remove it from the registry. Having a number on the Do Not Call Registry doesn’t prevent all telemarketer calls, however. There are a few exempt situations. According to the FTC:
  • Calls from or on behalf of political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors are still permitted, as are calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationship, or those to whom you’ve provided agreement in writing to receive their calls. However, if you ask a company with which you have an existing business relationship to place your number on its own do-not-call list, it must honor your request.
  • While political solicitations and charities are not covered by the requirements of the national registry, third-party telemarketers calling on behalf of a charity are covered. In those cases, a consumer may ask not to receive any more calls on behalf of that specific charity.
  • As for phone surveys, if the call is for the sole purpose of conducting a survey, it is allowed. Only telemarketing calls are covered — that is, calls that solicit sales of goods or services. Callers purporting to take a survey but also offering to sell goods or services are not allowed to dial numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.
  • If you get a suspicious call, be wary. If your number is on the Do Not Call Registry and you receive a call from a telemarketer, and it isn’t one of the allowed exceptions — soliciting for a political campaign, charity or a business you already have a relationship with — it is likely fraudulent. A caller could say you’ve won money or a prize, or request your assistance in some manner, such as sending money to a friend that is (supposedly) stranded abroad. Whatever the angle, be extremely cautious. Unless the call is legitimate, do not give the caller any information. If you can’t tell if it’s legitimate — and that can be increasingly difficult, as scammers try to sound as trustworthy as possible — be safe, rather than sorry, and hang up.
  • Report the call to your local law-enforcement agency. They might not be able to catch the caller, but they at least can keep a record of such instances to know if the area is being targeted by a scam.
  • Report the call to the FTC. For those with Internet access, visit www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Or call the FTC toll free. To report a company, organization or a business practice, call 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). To report an incident of identity theft, call 877-ID-THEFT (877-438-4338). To report a violation of the Do Not Call registry, call 888-382-1222.

October is National Cyber Security Awareness month

  • The Alaska Better Business Bureau is partnering with Stay Safe Online to promote safety in cyber realm. The organizations recommend the following steps for anyone who becomes a victim of cyber crime, such as identity theft, Social Security fraud, online stalking, cyberbullying or malware (malicious software):

Contact:

  • Local law enforcement.
  • The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center. IC3 will reviews and evaluates complaints and refers them to the appropriate federal, state, local or international law enforcement or regulatory agency that has jurisdiction over the matter. Complaints may be filed online at www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.
  • Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not resolve individual consumer complaints, but does operate the Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database that is used by civil and criminal law enforcement authorities worldwide to detect patterns of wrong-doing, leading to investigations and prosecutions. File complaints online at  www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Victims of identity crime cal also call the FTC hotline at 877-IDTHEFT (877-438-4388). And the FTC website, www.ftc.gov/IDTheft, provides resources for victims, businesses and law enforcement.

Collect and Keep Evidence

  • Keep any evidence or information related to the incident in a safe location in case you are requested to provide it for investigation or prosecution. Evidence could include: Canceled checks, certified or other mail receipts, chatroom or newsgroup text, credit card receipts, envelopes (if you received items via FedEx, UPS or U.S. mail), faxes, log files, if available, with dates, times and time zones, messages from Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites, money order receipts, pamphlets or brochures, phone bills, printed or electronic copies of emails (if printed, include full email header information), printed or electronic copies of web pages, and wire receipts.

Prevention is the best solution

Local information:

  • A class on Internet security and computer protection will be offered through Soldotna Community Schools from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 29 in the computer lab at Soldotna Middle School. It is open to the public, from novice to experienced computer users. The class is taught by Andrew Walker, and will discuss the many ways to protect computers from hackers, viruses, tracking cookies, spyware, scare ware, Trojan horses, worms and other security threats. The cost is $25 per person.

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