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Scam Alert: Telephone Trickery

Scammers regularly use telephone trickery—from classic telemarketing cons to “smishing,” a newer attempt at identity theft in which text messages sent to owners of wireless phones falsely claim to be from banks and credit card companies requesting updated account information.

In a lesser-known but especially devious scheme, crooks are increasingly using telephone systems designed for physically impaired people to fleece small-business owners. This ruse also rips off consumers, who pay for these services through fees on long-distance calls.

This scam isn’t new, but it’s on the upswing. “In recent months, business owners from all over the country have reported a significant uptick in calls they receive via telephone relay services,” says Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

These services, usually called TTY, let hearing- and speech-impaired people use special devices to type messages back and forth over the telephone.

Scammers use the devices, which can be purchased on the Internet for as little as $250, to pose as deaf callers, typing orders for products and services. A telecommunications employee—the “relay operator”—then places the call and reads the message to the targeted business. By law, the relay operator is not allowed to disclose the origin of the call, allowing crooks to mask their identity and location while making these calls for free.

The scammers usually use stolen credit cards to place their orders and often resell merchandise they buy. One glass company in Georgia recently lost $4,000 in charged merchandise in a telephone relay scam. “Caterers, manufacturers, all kinds of business are being targeted,” says Southwick.

In a new twist, however, the scammers try to bilk business owners out of cash with their pilfered plastic. “They’ll say they want to use a certain delivery service for their order that only accepts cash,” explains Southwick. “So they ask the business to wire money to that shipper and tack those charges on to the stolen credit card. That phony shipping company, of course, is part of the scam.”

Roy Javenkowski, 66, who owns an auto repair shop in Rhinelander, Wis., received such a request via a telephone relay service call in late March. “The caller said she needed a new transmission for her car, but needed to ship [the car] to my shop. She asked me to send her $1,000 to cover the shipping cost and charge it to her credit card.”

He smelled a scam and hung up. Afterward, Javenkowski called the relay center, where the operator confirmed the call was a scam and “told me that about 85 percent of the calls she handles are these kinds of scams.”

If you own a business, never send money for shipping or other expenses on the promise it will be tacked on to the caller’s credit card. Also be aware that a scammer may have a stolen credit card account number but not the actual card. So ask all callers—especially those using TTY relay operators—for their full name, address and telephone number. Also get the three- or four-digit verification code, the name of the issuing bank and its customer service number printed on cards, telling the caller that you will check the account with the bank and call back. An objection is a red flag that you’ve been targeted for a scam.

For more information, visit the Stop Relay Abuse website set up by a former relay operator. If you receive a suspicious telephone relay inquiry, contact your local BBB chapter and state attorney general.

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