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Scam Alert

When 911 Calls You

Crooks impersonate emergency dispatchers to scout out your home

MONEY scams & frauds

— Roy McMahon/Corbis

Crooks have a sneaky new way to target homes for possible burglary—by posing as 911 dispatchers responding to emergency calls.

“They call in the middle of the night—around 3 or 4 a.m.—saying they are from a 911 call center that has received numerous calls from that residence, and they want to make sure everything is OK,” says Brian A. Gottschall of the Berks County Department of Emergency Services in Pennsylvania. “Then they ask questions that a legitimate 911 center would not need to know.”

Such as: How many people live in your home? Are you home alone now? Is there a security system? If so, what company services it?

“Our thought is that this is a scam to case those residences for a possible burglary or home invasion,” says Gottschall, who reports that several people in Berks County have received such wee-hour inquiries. The criminals appear to hope that people awakened this way will be too groggy to realize that they haven’t called 911.

His advice: Provide no information. Hang up. Then notify police.

This scam could spread to other parts of the country, because most people don’t know how 911 really works, says Robert Smith of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, the group representing emergency dispatch personnel.

What you need to know about 911:

  • When you call 911, dispatchers contact the appropriate responder—ambulance, police or fire—and then usually remain on the line until personnel arrive. So don’t expect a callback to a call you made. “Callbacks are typically made only when the 911 center gets a hang-up call,” Smith says.
  • If you are having a medical emergency, you will likely be asked if there is someone else at home. “That’s because they don’t want you talking during a heart attack,” says Smith. But callers who need police or fire personnel won’t be asked such a question.
  • Dispatchers ask questions about home security systems only when you call to say that an alarm has been triggered. “They may ask who monitors your system so they will know if they get a call from that company,” he adds. “But they will never ask about access codes or how to disarm the system.”
  • Follow-up calls are sometimes made to gauge satisfaction with emergency service, but only if you have dialed 911. “You would be asked if you called on this date, and if you verify that, how the call was handled and such. But you will never be asked to provide detailed or personal information,” Smith says.


Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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