Anatomy of a Scam

In the old days, the buyer warning from the Latin, caveat emptor, meaning let the buyer beware, derives from the principle that a buyer, and not the seller of an item, is responsible for that purchase.  Let me extend this principle to present day conditions of scamming where the buyer does not get anything in exchange for what he/she believes was purchased.

I had received a number of calls about a special offer on my DirecTV account where I would be able to get 18 months half price, subsequently, to paying my bill for 6 months upfront at half price.  A number was left on my voicemail but I never responded.  However, I finally did answer when I saw a similar call come on my screen and, I was greeted by a robo voice offering the same deal, with DirecTV music in the background.  The voice beckoned me to wait until I was connected with someone.  My experience with all the technological advances is that it has become increasingly difficult to ever reach a real human voice.  For example, in making appointments with doctors or trying to speak to insurance companies of my clients, I find myself constantly put on call waiting before being able to speak to a real human.  So, the wait before being connected to someone gave me more credence in the phone call.

When a real person came online. he asked me for my password to verify my account information, all of which DirecTV and AT&T do, as normal procedure, when a customer contacts them.  He then said there was a promotion that DirecTV and eBay were jointly offering that applied to DirecTV users, like myself.  What was added was that eBay was involved in the promotion.  He then asked if I would be interested in having this special deal put on my DirecTV account, along with additional channels I did not have that I would receive for free as an incentive.  When I checked to verify the numbers of the stations he was citing on my TV, they were, in fact, the same ones he had mentioned.  I then told him I would take the deal at which time he gave me a confirmation number that he said I should take down.  Everything so far appeared legit.

Next, he explained that I needed to buy an eBay gift card for 6 months from a local Kroger’s or CVS or Rite Aid.  When I told him I was no longer interested in the deal, he said I would have to pay a $200 cancellation fee at which point I protested vehemently.  He then told me I could call the billing department at DirecTV if I wished.  When I called the 866 number I had been given, the man I spoke to reiterated what was already said telling me I had to pay the cancellation fee.  I then asked to speak to his supervisor.  When the supervisor came on the line, he said he couldn’t change the company’s policy regarding the $200 I needed to pay as a cancellation fee.

By this time, I was in a combined state of dismay, frustration and anger.  Rather than forfeit the $200, I decided I might as well go for the promotion and asked the supervisor exactly what I needed to do.  He told me that I had to buy a 6-month eBay gift card as a payback to that company for sponsoring the deal; I was to peel off the silver label with the serial numbers and call them into him.  He told me I had to do it by 5 p.m., Pacific Coast Time, to qualify for the deal.  When I informed him that was impossible due to my work schedule, he told me I still had to pay the cancellation fee.  I asked him what his name was and, he told me John Anderson.   Because he and the other man I spoke to had heavy Indian accents, I became suspicious.   In the background, Lisa, my wife, was saying they were breaking California state law that allows the buyer the right to cancel any contract within 48 hours.  Hearing what my wife had said, he said the promotion had been approved by the Better Business Bureau and, I could call them to verify what he was saying. If I did not pay the cancellation fee, he then threatened to cut off my DirecTV in the next 30 minutes.  At this point, my wife screamed out so he could hear it: “You are a disgrace to the human race,” and told me to hang-up.  He emphatically repeated to me that if I hang up, my DirecTV connection would be discontinued.  I hung up.

I then dialed the Better Business Bureau and, while waiting to speak to someone, saw on my iPhone screen that AT&T was calling.  I left the call to BBB and took the call from AT&T.  When the representative said she was from DirecTV Moving, I became suspicious of her.  However, she did confirm that she was with AT&T and, she asked if I was going on holiday for two months out of the country, and whether I had asked to suspend my DirecTV services for that period of time.  By giving out my password, I had allowed the intruders to speak to customer relations and put a stop on my service.  I related to her what had happened with me, and she told me I could call the AT&T Fraud Unit. I did just that.  The woman that answered my call from AT&T verified the other lady’s identification name and number that had been given to me.  She had been aware of the scheme I revealed to her telling me that AT&T does not call about promotions but emails them.  When I told her a lot of scams exist online, she did not disagree. 

Before proceeding to learn anything further about this scam, I immediately changed my password with AT&T-DirecTV.  Afterwards, I googled DirecTV-eBay promotion and discovered that this very same scam had been going on for some time.  Let me review what I learned from this experience for any other readers that may have a gullible streak.  My first mistake was to not google eBay-DirecTV.  The internet has many faults but one of its benefits is the availability of information.  If I had done this, I would have known from the start this was a scam.  Such calls can be blocked once one discovers a scam.  I was too eager to respond to what sounded like a “great deal” without doing some simple fact checking.  I further discovered that gift cards should only be used by whoever received the card or the purchaser and should never be given as payment for any service.  If someone asks you for payment in this manner, it is definitely not legit.  The reason why crooks request payment via gift cards is because they are not traceable to any bank account and cannot be retrieved.  When you are reading the serial numbers to someone, you are in effect handing that person cash.  The thief that has those numbers in his possession will then redeem the gift card as quickly as possible rendering it valueless.  He/she will do this by selling the gift card, probably at a discount, on an online shopping site such as Craigslist.

Unfortunately, scammers can burn phone numbers for one time use with all types of faked prefixes that conceals where the call originates.  I have read that these types of calls can come from another country.  On a number of occasions, I have received an email or phone call stating that I just got billed from Amazon a certain amount and I need to call a certain number if I hadn’t made that order.  Again, this simply requires some fact-checking by either going online and checking to see what my latest purchase was.  My wife, Lisa, far less naïve than I, has shown me how to verify authenticity of emails.  Even if the logo looks real, check the email address of the sender.  It may start with Amazon or AT&T with an official looking logo, but than after that may come lots of letters or numbers that point to a scammer. 

When we were children, we all had heard of the Aesop Fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, about the boy who repeatedly lies to the nearby villagers into believing that a wolf is attacking the sheep of a town’s flock. When a wolf actually appears, the town folk do not believe the boy’s warning and the sheep perish.  The ubiquity of scammers online, by text and by telephone is so strong in present day society that it has become difficult to know who is telling the truth.  Our heightened awareness of the everyday presence of scammers has created a general distrust that we all feel.  The caveat emptor of old has spread its wings to the online world.  I think it is much more difficult in today’s world of social media to find that rare honest individual.