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Customer Service Scams

Whenever we have a problem with a charge or a purchase, it’s comforting to be able to talk to a real person on the phone in an effort to get things resolved. Unfortunately, criminals know that, too, and are eager to take advantage of it. In customer service scams, criminals lure their targets into calling phony customer support numbers for payment apps and e-commerce retailers (often Amazon), then impersonate helpful staffers in order to steal money and sensitive personal data from their targets.

Customer service scams can take different forms. You might receive an email saying there’s been fraudulent activity on your payment app (Zelle or Venmo, for example) and warning that you need to call the customer service number listed in the message in the next 24 hours to avoid paying the charge.

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You might also get a phone text or instant message that claims to be from a big retailer, saying you have a lost package or need to confirm an order.

Or in an effort to get a problem straightened out, you might do a quick online search for a company’s customer service department and find a toll-free phone number. You don’t realize that the number you found is a fake, from a website with a look-alike name and design that’s been planted on the web by crooks.

No matter which trap is set, when you call the number, the friendly voice at the other end will offer to assist you with the problem. You may be asked for personal information, which criminals can use for identity theft. Or you may be told that whatever problem you have can be resolved if you wire funds or send gift cards to them. In some instances, the crook may even tell you that for him to investigate fraudulent charges, you need to download an app to your phone or computer that allows him remote access. Next thing you know the criminal is breaking into your bank account.

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Crooks have come up with an even more sophisticated variation of the customer service scam. You might receive what looks like a letter from a bank or finance company, saying that there’s an issue with your mortgage and that you need to call customer service by scanning the QR code printed in the letter. That code will take you to a look-alike website, where you’ll be asked to type in your personal and payment information, which again will enable the crook to take your money.

Although there aren’t statistics available on customer service scams, news stories describe incidents in which criminals have stolen thousands of dollars from their targets. According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB)’s 2021 Scam Tracker Risk Report, e-commerce giant Amazon is the business scammers most often impersonate.

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Warning signs 

  • An unsolicited email, text message or other communication that says you need to contact customer service immediately to rectify a situation. Criminals like to put their targets under pressure to act hastily, lessening the chance they’ll notice the deception.
  • A message directs you to a website that supposedly belongs to a familiar company but has an address that looks slightly different from what you’ve seen before.
  • Someone contacts you claiming to be from customer service and asks for personal information.

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Be aware that scam perpetrators like to use brand names you’ll tend to trust, and they may be extremely good at pretending to be that brand.
  • Go directly to a company’s website to find its customer service number. Always type in the number manually in your phone, rather than click a link to call customer service. The same goes for any text or email that claims to be from the company; rather than replying directly, find its legitimate number.
  • Always type the company’s web address into your browser, or use its app if you have access. This way you avoid fake links that could steal login info or load malware (malicious software) onto your device.
  • If you’re going to an e-commerce or payment website instead of a mobile app, do it on a computer instead of your phone, so you can float your cursor over the links and see where they take you. That will help you to detect if a site is a clever look-alike.
  • Hang up on any customer service representative who asks you to download and install any app on your device that allows someone remote access to it. No legitimate representative would ask you do to that.
  • Understand that if someone who claims to be a customer service rep pressures you to give up sensitive personal or financial information, it’s a sure sign that the person is a fake.
  • Keep the PIN number to your payment app to yourself. A fake customer service rep might ask for it as a source of identification, then use it to drain your bank account.
  • If you think a message might be from a scammer, send it to the company for verification. PayPal customers, for example, can forward suspicious messages to phishing@paypal.com.
Watch Out for These 3 Amazon Impostor Scams

More resources

  • Contact your state government’s consumer protection office or  attorney general.
  • You can report a scam to the Federal Trade Commission online or by calling 1-877-382-4357.
  • Report your encounter to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline. You'll be able to speak to a fraud specialist and data from the Helpline will be shared with the Federal Trade Commission and used to identify trends and build cases against criminals. You can also report your encounter on the AARP Scam-Tracking Map. Your report will help warn others in your area. 
  • Amazon encourages anyone who receives a fraudulent communication from a sender claiming to be Amazon to report it immediately to the company.