A 72-year-old California man was desperate for a phone number for HP. He pays the printer maker $14.99 a month for tech support and wanted to speak to a real person for help, not chat online.
So in early February, the man searched the web for HP’s number, dialed the first one that popped up and ended up speaking to a real person.
The problem? The real person was a real crook.
Lesson 1: Don’t automatically trust a phone number that shows up on an internet search. It could be a fake.
The man at the center of this story is not being named because after he called the bogus number he thought was HP’s, he became entangled in a web of lies and a $717 fraud.
Though the victim is not being identified, here are a few things about him: He’s a Navy veteran who served two tours on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise off the coast of Vietnam during the war. He graduated from college on the GI Bill, defying the expectations of people who sold him short because of his blue-collar roots.
For a time he owned his own business. Now he’s retired and disabled. Health problems led to the amputation of some of his toes, and he no longer drives. That makes him more reliant on online shopping. He says he often buys things on Amazon using an Amazon-branded credit card.
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Recently on Amazon he bought an HP printer. The purchase prompted him to seek tech support from HP to set up wireless printing.
When he searched the web for an HP phone number, he went to a look-alike website that seemed legitimate, only wasn’t. The site gave a business address that he later learned was a strip mall in California. He dialed the number and the con artist who answered gave his name as “John William.”
Things went from bad to worse when the victim granted the crook’s request for remote access to his computer. The victim only gave permission because he thought he was dealing with HP — not an impostor.
Lesson 2: Never let a stranger have remote access to your computer — unless you are 100 percent sure the person is trustworthy.
The victim became alarmed while he watched his computer screen and saw the fraudster go to amazon.com. He protested, telling “John William” that he didn’t want to buy anything. Hoping to prevent misuse of his Amazon account — and to end the matter — the victim then shut his computer off.
But the mischief didn’t stop. Soon the victim received a package containing three Best Buy gift cards worth a total of $700 along with a USB drive. He hadn’t bought them, nor had he authorized their purchase.
A day later, a man whose voice sounded very much like that of “John William” phoned the victim and purported to be from “Amazon fraud.” The man on the other end, who never stated his name, asked for the redemption numbers for the gift cards, but the victim refused, then hung up.
The victim says he next alerted Amazon, the credit-card company, the local sheriff’s office and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
He also called the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline, 877-908-3360, to say he’d been defrauded. Reliant on Social Security, the victim, who spoke in an interview, said he had no need for the Best Buy gift cards, which still were unused and in their original condition. He said would happily return the cards to Amazon for a refund. And he pointed out that despite the fraud, no business had lost money to date. Only he stood to lose.
Amazon’s initial response? It emailed the victim saying: “After reviewing your Amazon.com account, we did not find any unauthorized activity. As a result, we did not make any changes to your account.”
Lesson 3: Even in today’s world, companies can do right by their customers.
AARP contacted Amazon about the victim’s case. After interviewing him and launching an investigation, Amazon gave him a full credit for $717.31 to “reimburse him for the fraudulent transaction.”
A bonus? The victim said Amazon, which typically doesn’t allow gift cards to be returned after purchase, told him that he could keep the Best Buy cards and use them as he wished.
“Scammers that attempt to impersonate Amazon put our customers and our brand at risk,” a company spokesman told AARP. “We will continue to invest in protecting customers and educating the public on scam avoidance. We encourage customers to report suspected scams to us so that we can protect their accounts and refer bad actors to law enforcement to help keep consumers safe.”
According to the victim, the mega-retailer is continuing to investigate his case.
For his part, he says he is grateful for AARP’s support: “It’s really nice to have contact with people who not only say they’re sorry, and they wish it were otherwise, but they actually stepped up to do something. It was a really trying circumstance.”
As for the gift cards, he hasn’t used them yet but says his son needs a new dishwasher. “I will do almost anything for my son,” he says. “So if he needs a dishwasher, we’ll figure it out.”
Ongoing threat: Tech-support scams
There were nearly 114,000 reports of tech-support scams last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says.
“Telephone technical-support scams are an ongoing threat to technology companies such as HP and our customers,” the company says.
In a statement to AARP, HP said if you believe you have been contacted by a scammer and are concerned about the security of your device and personal information, take these steps:
- Change the password for your device and all accounts containing personal information, such as email and financial accounts.
- Run a security scan or contact your security software provider to determine whether malware has been installed on your device.
- Write down all details related to the scam call and report the information to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
HP says the company considers the security of customers’ devices and personal information a “top priority.” Its statement added:
“We will continue to investigate tech-support scams and implement proactive and preventive measures to combat cybercriminals. HP refers cases to law enforcement authorities when appropriate and will cooperate in any related investigations.”
It also offers this additional scam-prevention guidance.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.