FORT LEE, Virginia –
From extortion and phishing to identity theft and hacking, cyber criminals target personal information with innovation and variance. In today’s online world, digital security protects more than bank account numbers. Much of everything is captured on the internet. An understanding of threats and how to protect against them remains vital.
The latest scam I have come across started with a phone call. Asking for me by my full name, the person on the other end of the line identified themselves as a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, gave me their badge number, and told me they had seized a package with my name and address on it at the Mexican border. It sounded believable at first.
“This is Officer Melinda Diaz, and I’m investigating a package that is addressed to you that contains contraband,” the agent said. It sounded important, so I asked how I could help. “We contacted the post office and found that this was only one of several packages sent to your address that you received and that the others contained drugs and cash for money laundering. We are now running an investigation as all of these packages were under your name, and you are responsible for them. What contacts do you have in Mexico?”
This was where the caller first tipped her hand. First class letters and parcels are protected under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Without a search warrant the post office does not open mail. So how would they have known there were drugs and money in packages they couldn’t legally open?
Their second mistake was that you cannot be held responsible for what is mailed to you. Right off the bat, I knew that the chances of being approached this way as a subject of an investigation was highly unlikely.
Finally, the caller’s technique of asking questions is a standard diversion tactic used to keep a conversation going and to distract me from thinking too hard about packages the post office didn’t actually deliver. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered any packages delivered to me containing money or drugs.
After telling the caller that I didn’t know anyone in Mexico, they suggested that I might be a victim of identity theft. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but I happen to use a credit monitoring service that tells me when there is suspicious activity taking place with my personal information. But since I knew I’d be writing another article on scams, I wanted to see where this call would go.
The caller said they had multiple credit cards, driver’s licenses and bank accounts listed in my name and it was clear there was money laundering going on. I just needed to identify which ones were mine so they could suspend the fraudulent ones.
“I have to tell you that this is a government line,” the agent continued. “Our conversation is being recorded and we will not ask you to reveal any confidential information. May I ask you if you own a property?”
The lies are starting to get obvious. When a phone call is being recorded, there is a ‘beep’ every 15 seconds or so, as a reminder of the recording. No beep here, so this is not a government recorded line. Also, did you notice the question at the end to keep me on the line and from thinking too hard about the previous lie?
The caller offered up my actual address, and I confirmed it was my house. She then asked about other addresses that were not mine. After saying she would disconnect the fraudulent addresses, she moved on to asking about my bank accounts. And there it was, they wanted information about my bank accounts, something I would never give out.
“Please understand that we are gathering this information so that we know which accounts to shut off in our investigation,” the caller persisted while I continued to decline. “We were making the assumption that you were an innocent victim, but if you will not give me the information, we will open the case against you.”
The caller at this point said she could sense my hesitation and offered to let me talk with her supervisor. There was a long wait on the line until someone with a suspiciously similar voice came on.
“Hello, I’m officer Yolanda Choates. I understand you are having problems filling out the asset declaration form with my subordinate,” the new caller said. “I will continue the investigation from here. Now, do you receive regular checks from the government such as a pension or social security?”
At this point, she changes tactics again. This time hoping I would submit to her authority. When I continued to refuse, she indicated that they had an arrest warrant for me and would have the local police deliver it. They even went so far as to tell me that they would have the local police department call to verify they had a warrant. Asking if my phone could take two calls at once, they had me wait for a few minutes. They used this time to look up my local police office and spoof, or replicate, the phone number and then connected it to our call.
“I’ve been forwarded your case from the DEA and we have a warrant for your arrest,” said the new caller, presumably a local police officer. “You have two ways to take care of this, you can hire a criminal defense lawyer. It will cost you a great deal of money, and if you lose, you will go to jail for more than nine years. Or we can have you work directly with the U.S. Marshal’s office who will take your side in the investigation. Which method would you like to use?”
The phone number displayed on the call was in fact from the records division of my local police department, but not from the investigators division. But here’s the catch, we went from “I’m calling about something unusual,” to “I have a federal warrant for your arrest,” to “I have a local warrant for your arrest,” and finally, “we can settle this without involving the courts,” all within about an hour. I can tell you first hand, that nothing in government works this fast.
Also, arrest warrants must be issued by a neutral judge based on sworn testimony and evidence that specifically identifies the person or property to be seized. Further, a federal warrant is issued by a federal judge, and does not automatically become a local warrant. So, in this case, the attempt to scare me into believing a local authority was coming for me confirmed this was a scam.
I was then forwarded back to the “DEA agent supervisor” to continue with the asset declaration forms. I would have loved to have continued on, but this had already taken an hour of time, my lunch break was up, and we all know how the rest of the conversation goes.
If I had turned over my accounts to the friendly U.S. Marshals, they would have reminded me that all of this was to prevent charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and identity theft against me — all very serious crimes. I would have been asked to send money using gift cards or via a wire transfer from my account.
We didn’t get that far. I ended the call with them swearing and threatening me. It was obvious the callers were upset as I had just wasted an hour of their workday and they were not going to get paid for it.
To summarize, this fraud was sophisticated in that it used several different techniques.
- They had my full name and address on file, which adds to their credibility.
- They told me it was a recorded line, a trick that can make people nervous.
- They said they wouldn’t ask for sensitive information and then did exactly that asking for my bank accounts, driver’s license number and what sort of regular government checks I received. This is a simple way to trick someone into thinking the information requested isn’t actually sensitive.
- They brought in a supervisor and then the local police. Both ploys to trick me into submitting to an authority figure.
- They went from accusations of wrong doing, to an appeal to help with an investigation, to threats using various pressures. Each level designed to find a tactic that would be most effective.
All of these things contributed to making the call seem legitimate, and frankly, a little intimidating. If you come across this type of scam, don’t be fooled. Keep these things in mind:
- The government will never ask you for bank or credit card information over the phone.
- No government agency will ask you to settle a matter with a wire transfer or gift card.
- No actual investigator will ask you about your personal assets over the phone.
An actual investigation will be coordinated in person or through the mail. The investigator will give you plenty of time to check them out prior to that meeting and you will receive paperwork in the mail with actual addresses you can verify. In short, no actual investigation will be done over a single phone call.
If you receive one of these scam calls, you can report it at: www.ic3.gov or www.reportfraud.ftc.gov. You may also want to learn about other ways to protect yourself by going to: www.identitytheft.gov.
While I was writing this, I received two more scam calls — one of them on my work phone, but we can talk about those next time.
Until then, stay safe out there.
(Tobi Beck serves as the chief of strategy, planning, and governance with Defense Contract Management Agency’s Information Technology Directorate. In this second entry in an internet safety series, Beck explains the complex tactics used in phone scams.)