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Criminals Deceive Search Engines With Fake Results

Malvertising can lead to disaster for consumers searching for Amazon and other customer service numbers

spinner image Criminals create fake website customer service support sites such that look like Amazon's actual customer service supports.
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spinner image infographic quote that reads "The search engines are being manipulated. You think that when you are searching for the customer service number that you're actually going to get the right number. And you're not."
AARP
Full Transcript

(MUSIC INTRO)

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] Christopher Elliott: People are so desperate now just to get through to someone from the company and talk. I don't know if I would call it an epidemic yet, but we're getting pretty close to it. The search engines are being manipulated, leveraged for nefarious purposes. And this is one of the worst things that can happen, is you know you put your trust in Google, and you think that when you are searching for the customer service phone number that you're actually going to get a customer service phone number. And you're not. 

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:37] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. If you've heard it from me once, you've heard it a thousand times. If you receive an unexpected phone call from a company, hang up and call them back on a number you know is valid. This advice is very, very crucial. But in today's story we're going to go just a little bit deeper on this advice. How do you find a number that is valid? Well, this part is critical, because it's important to understand that criminals have figured out how to deceive search engines like Google and manage to put in front of consumers fake phone numbers that look like they belong to the real company. It's sometimes called malvertising, malicious advertising. And when that happens, disaster can follow. That's what today's guest says happened to her right when she was already dealing with the worst kind of heartache that a mom can suffer.

[00:01:35] I actually have had four children, but I did lose my, my daughter suddenly to an invasive brain tumor in four months.

[00:01:49] Bob: I'm so sorry. That's terrible.

[00:01:52] Thank you, thank you for that. So I have three children at this time.

[00:02:00] Bob: That's Marcia Smith who lives just outside San Diego. The terrible news came earlier this year and Marcia barely had time to digest it before her daughter was gone. Marcia is a mom, a grandmom, a great grandmother, and family is everything to her.

[00:02:20] Marcia Smith: Well I have a son in Beacon, New York, a son in San Franscico, a daughter and her husband in Los Angeles, and I have 7 grandchildren, and 2 great grandchildren kind of spread out.

[00:02:36] Bob: That sounds like a pretty busy uh, uh birthday card list.

[00:02:39] Marcia Smith: (chuckling) You know, you hit the nail on the head. That's me. I, and I just finished a couple, and I'm ready to do another one, and it's just like, boom, boom, boom. 'Cause I'm very adamant about sending cards.

[00:02:56] Bob: And this birthday card list keeps getting longer. At the same time Marcia was getting ready to say goodbye to her daughter, well Marcia was about to become a great grandmother for the second time.

[00:03:10] Marcia Smith: My granddaughter was having her second little baby, and my daughter died before he was born.

[00:03:18] Bob: But only a few days before, right?

[00:03:21] Marcia Smith: A week to two weeks, hmm-hmm.

[00:03:24] Bob: I'm so, so, that just sounds so painful. I'm so sorry.

[00:03:27] Marcia Smith: It, it was. It, it is. You know, because I was, you know, thankfully able to be with her, you know, as she passed. And that certainly didn't make up for much, but you know, better than not, for sure, for her sake.

[00:03:47] Bob: It was August of this year, and in the midst of everything else going on in her life and in her family, Marcia still worried about taking care of everyone in the family, and she realizes she's just a bit late ordering a gift for her son's birthday, and well that's where our story really starts.

[00:04:06] Marcia Smith: I had not gotten a gift. I had sent a card, thankfully, and I was scrambling for something, and I decided to order a cheesecake for him because I typically, as he was growing up, made cheesecake for him for his birthday, at least when he was older. And he discriminated between birthday cakes, you know, to that extent. So that's what I was trying to do that morning of the 22nd.

[00:04:40] Bob: What Marcia did was something she's done many times before, she turned to Amazon for help. She wasn't sure though, how does one order a cheesecake like that?

[00:04:51] Marcia Smith: I wasn't sure how to manage that through Amazon, so I called them. And the number I've always called Amazon on, which I actually have in my address book because I keep a lot of phone numbers that way, didn't work.

[00:05:07] Bob: Yeah, you had called Amazon before for something.

[00:05:09] Marcia Smith: Oh, I've called Amazon for, for years because I always need help. But since I was eager to get this cheesecake ordered because it was a day before his birthday, I went on Google and I took the most convenient number that came at me.

[00:05:28] Bob: But when an operator answers the phone, Marcia was told something is wrong with her account.

[00:05:34] Marcia Smith: I first was intercepted by someone who called himself Mohammed, and he asked me if I had ordered a room purifier, because he said someone has ordered that on your account. And of course, I had not. It was over $400, and so he said, "I'm, I'm going to connect you to someone else because you know it looks like someone's been using your account." And so he did. He connected me to someone named Stephen, and he then connected me to another person, so he gave me his name as David Miller, and he gave me a lot of reason to be concerned.

[00:06:25] Bob: So concerned that the birthday gift immediately goes on the back burner.

[00:06:32] Bob: What was your emotional reaction to hearing that there was fraud on your Amazon account?

[00:06:36] Marcia Smith: Well, immediate concern because I realized I could no longer pursue ordering a cheesecake under the circumstances.

[00:06:45] Bob: Yeah, so first problem is your son's not going to have a birthday gift, right?

[00:06:49] Marcia Smith: Well, and, and never did receive one by the way. Um...

[00:06:53] Bob: Oh no!

[00:06:55] Marcia Smith: Well, you know, he's, he's, he's not a child. So...

[00:07:00] Bob: I'm sure he got over it, but uh, but yeah...

[00:07:01] Marcia Smith: I, I, I'm sure.

[00:07:03] Bob: Your day took a, a very hard left turn though, right?

[00:07:05] Marcia Smith: Yes. My life did actually, hmm-hmm.

[00:07:09] Bob: So David Miller says he's taking a closer look at Marcia's account, and there's a lot more to be concerned about.

[00:07:18] Marcia Smith: He said he had information to give me and he told me that it came through that investigative team. First thing he said was I had been spied upon by a very large network, so to speak, that came actually out of Russia, and he said that they were able to see everything that had to do with my financial information. And that they had taken $35,000 and they had channeled it into ... some of these words are mine ... um, a child pornography website, so to speak.

[00:08:11] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:08:12] Marcia Smith: In my name. That they had opened the account in my name.

[00:08:16] Bob: That sounds like horrifying that somebody's you know using your money to, to spend it on child pornography. That's, that's terrible.

[00:08:22] Marcia Smith: Well, especially since I'm started to envision that they can see into my phone, and I have lots of pictures of my little grandchildren and, and grandnephew, you know, on my, on my phone. And I, I thought that perhaps it was going to even go that far.

[00:08:43] Bob: Oh God. That's terrifying.

[00:08:47] Bob: David Miller tells Marcia he can help her, but she's going to have to trust him.

[00:08:54] Bob: What did he say, how was he going to help you?

[00:08:56] Marcia Smith: Well, through a duplicate transaction, which meant I had to withdraw the $35,000 so that they could cancel it and recharge it or something similar. And he used an example that had to do with something I was familiar with, though it didn't necessarily relate, but it was a familiar process for me, and that is when you're in a store and you suddenly have reason to need to return some items or put it onto a different payment method, they have to cancel everything and then re-charge it to your account. So they take all these items and they take them off, and then they put them back on. And I think that's what he was suggesting.

[00:09:50] Bob: I mean those transactions can look really complicated. By the time you're done, they give you all these pieces of paper, right, and there's pluses and minuses, and it just sort of feels, yeah, yeah.

[00:09:59] Marcia Smith: Basically you're fixing it, and that's what he was saying they would do for me is fix it.

[00:10:05] Bob: So in order to begin the process to fix things, Marcia is told she has to jump right into her car.

[00:10:12] Marcia Smith: Well, he had me go to my bank which is a distance away for me, everything is. Normally I never jump in the car and go a distance. I plan it, but I did it.

[00:10:27] Bob: As she's making her way to the bank, David Miller has one very specific instruction for her.

[00:10:33] Marcia Smith: Well, first thing was he said to leave my phone one while I was driving. So I did. I was in pretty constant communication with him during the trip, and he said to leave the phone on in the bank.

[00:10:50] Bob: And as she walks into the bank, David Miller can hear everything that's going on.

[00:10:57] Marcia Smith: I talked to a teller and I said, "I want to withdraw $35,000 from my account." And it was rather late in the day, maybe almost closing. And she said, "We usually like to have a phone call in advance." And I said, "Oh, I didn't realize that." You know, and so she also said, "We normally only withdraw from a person's account up to 25,000." And I said, "Oh, well, I wonder if there's someone else I can speak with?" And so she got someone else, it took a little while, and a person came out from the back and pretty much reminded me that there was a lot of fraud happening with people.

[00:12:02] Bob: David had already prepared her that she shouldn't tell the bank what's really going on. So...

[00:12:09] Marcia Smith: She asked what I was using it for, and I had to make something up which I was uncomfortable with, but I said, "Her mother, my, my daughter, just died, and she had a baby about a week to two weeks later, and I want to help her out." That was true. And so she said, "You're not going to give her all of this all at one time, are you?" And I said, "Oh no, I'll dole it out as needed." And then she asked where my granddaughter who I mentioned as the recipient of, of these funds lived, and I said a town that was nearby, and then she said, "Oh good." She said, "I'm relieved that she's at least, you know, close."

[00:13:08] Bob: That's apparently enough to satisfy the bank which then gives the $35,000 in cash to Marcia.

[00:13:16] Marcia Smith: And then she did not walk me to the door, and she did not check me getting into my car which I later thought, well that's something that certainly should be done. I want to mention also something that is pretty significant. They gave me the cash in a box that had had penny rolls in it, so on the outside of the box you saw that box came from a bank. And I was anxious to move on and get to where he wanted me to go next. So, put the box right on my front seat.

[00:13:59] Bob: I'd, I'd be so nervous driving around with money like that, yeah.

[00:14:02] Marcia Smith: Yeah, that's what can happen when someone hands you that much money and you are feeling the urgency of being a victim and wanting to correct that as soon as possible.

[00:14:18] Bob: So Marcia tells David she has the money, and he gives her a new set of instructions. He wants Marcia to drive to a bitcoin ATM and use the machine to transfer the money into a new account.

[00:14:32] Marcia Smith: And I was already so, well tired, you know, emotionally tired, devastated, all of the above, and so I never heard of bitcoin, so he said it was at Circle K, so I looked up the address, but I misinterpreted it. I went right past it, way down that very, very long street, went into a bitcoin, wrong bitcoin, and finally talked to him, had to keep pulling off the road, and I found myself back at the bitcoin machine.

[00:15:14] Bob: Things don't go as planned, however.

[00:15:17] Marcia Smith: Ironically, I had my expired driver’s license with me instead of my current one which I had. So he, he tried to coach me through it. I had to keep doing it over and over and put this in and put that in. And he wanted me to scan my driver's license, and I didn't know how to scan anything on a bitcoin machine. Finally it rejected it because of my expired driver's license. Now I had to call the number. Now I had to wait for a response. That went on and on. I think I was in there for up to four hours I probably was dealing with this issue.

[00:16:02] Bob: Oh my God, no. And this is...

[00:16:05] Marcia Smith: I know and I don't stand up for long periods, I'm fine, but standing is kind of... I get restless. So I get more anxious standing if I'm not moving, if I'm not active. And so I was very uncomfortable to say the least. I was looking for a place to sit on, on some kind of stacked product so I could relieve myself of, of some of that. In the meantime, you know, I had to wait until they got an approval, because then they were going to send the request to another department. And that took quite a little while. And it was dark, and it was late. I mean it was probably close to 9 o'clock, between 8 and 9, and this had started early in the morning of course. And so I went back in when they emailed me that they had gotten it approved, but the machine only would accept $2900. So he said, "Just put it in." And I did.

[00:17:12] Bob: So Marcia has to drive home with the rest of the cash that night. She is flustered, but David Miller has come up with another way to transfer Marcia's money.

[00:17:22] Bob: He sent a courier to pick up the rest of the money, is that right?

[00:17:24] Marcia Smith: He did, yes, in the morning, hmm-hmm.

[00:17:26] Bob: And at this time, you're still dealing with David Miller, right?

[00:17:28] Marcia Smith: Yes, I am.

[00:17:30] Bob: At this point, Marcia feels dutybound to explain to David Miller why she told the story she did at the bank about sending the money to her granddaughter after the death of her own daughter.

[00:17:43] Marcia Smith: I really felt ashamed to do this, but I wanted to be as truthful as I could, but I couldn't be very truthful because obviously this money was never going to go to my granddaughter. I said, "I just want you to know," because he heard all this when I was at the bank, "that I, I didn't make up a story that I had lost my daughter or that my granddaughter just had a baby following that." I said, "I just want you to know that actually happened to me, 'cause I don't want to sound like, you know, I would lie about something like that." And he said, you know, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," and, you know, he said the cursory things that people say when you know they get that kind of information. I was worried that he would think I was lying, you know, about that.

[00:18:43] Bob: He knew what you were going through.

[00:18:44] Marcia Smith: Hmm-hmm.

[00:18:44] Bob: You had just lost a daughter, and he's still doing all this to you.

[00:18:47] Marcia Smith: Hmm-hmm.

[00:18:49] Bob: Well, Marcia sits at home and waits for the courier to arrive so she could finish fixing the problem, but things don't go smoothly this time either.

[00:18:59] Marcia Smith: Well he sent the courier. He also told me to take a picture of the box closed and open with the money in it, take a picture of my house because he wanted the courier to be able to identify it when he came here, and he gave me specific instructions as to how to put it right by my front door, but not till he called and told me to put it there, to not go to the door, to not talk to him. I never heard him, and David Miller had not timed it quite right so the courier got here before the money was sitting where he had told me to put it, eventually. And so the courier left without it, but I happened to see out of my window, accidentally, him drive away. So then David Miller called me and then he said, "Don't worry, don't worry. I can get him back." He did. I put the money out. He came up the stairs again. I still didn't hear him.

[00:20:03] Bob: The courier on his way, Marcia awaits instructions on how she'll get back the $35,000, but instead, she soon hears even more bad news from David Miller. Criminals are still using her bank account.

[00:20:18] Marcia Smith: These bad guys had gotten ahold of $37,000 more dollars, and that they had channeled this through a gambling site.

[00:20:30] Bob: David wants Marcia to move another $37,000. But this time he tells her it'll be easier. She can wire the money, but he tells her to go to a different branch of the bank.

[00:20:43] Bob: Wow. And had you ever wired money like that before?

[00:20:46] Marcia Smith: No. And so I went down that day and I wired $37,000 to a bank whose address and information and name he gave me in great detail, and it was a bank in Hong Kong. The recipient had a Chinese name.

[00:21:11] Bob: So you went into the bank and did they ask any questions when you uh, tried to initiate this wire order?

[00:21:18] Marcia Smith: They asked what it was for, basically they were asking why I was wiring the money to this person, and I said, and this was a suggestion that David Miller made, he was my grandson's business partner, and the money was to start a business.

[00:21:43] Bob: So the bank follows the instructions Marcia gives them, and initiates the wire transfer, but...

[00:21:50] Marcia Smith: She said that it was too late for the wire to go out that day. And so I went back to my car, and now David Miller wants me to take a picture of every page that she had given me of the wire transaction, my driver's license, front and back, and email them to him. And I, I remember, it was hot, I was so uncomfortable I had to move my car over to a shady place so I could concentrate and do it. And, you know, the fact that I did that and accomplished it made me feel quite smug because those things don't come naturally to me, especially under those circumstances. So I did manage to do that. I drove home that night, but I was worried about that wire going out, and so I checked, and it had gone out in the morning of the next day.

[00:22:51] Bob: But even as she calls the bank the next morning and now it's a Friday morning, she starts to have strange feelings about all this happening to her.

[00:23:01] Marcia Smith: Because I believe I started at some point having qualms about what had happened, and the meaning of it. I think it was a culmination of things. One of the key things he said from the start, "Don't talk to anybody about this, not your family," and I'm close with my family, and I discuss a lot of things with my family. I never told my family anything. He said, "Don't call them, don't use your phone. Disconnect your landline." It just came over me.

[00:23:39] Bob: But what does she do with these concerns? Who does she call? At this point, Marcia seems sure David Miller can listen in on her conversations.

[00:23:49] Marcia Smith: And I was afraid to use my phones because I thought that they had access to everything now, and by they, I mean David Miller and the investigative team. And, um, so I went to my neighbor's, who's right behind me, and asked to use her phone and told her why and she let me. That was late on Friday of the 25th.

[00:24:17] Bob: Marcia wants to call the bank, but her neighbor insists she call the police first.

[00:24:22] Marcia Smith: I talked with him, I was sort of disconcerted with his response and discouraged. So I said, "You know, I'm not going to file a report now. I want to call the bank because they're going to close." And then I called the bank.

[00:24:36] Bob: So she calls the bank then, and that doesn't go well.

[00:24:41] Marcia Smith: I spoke to a total of a minimum of three people that evening. The bank took down the information in a cursory way. He then proceeded to have me speak to a third person, and I'm not sure what led to that, but fundamentally what she was letting me know was the bank had no responsibility in this situation because I had voluntarily withdrawn my own money, and the sheriff said the same thing to me and that didn't make me to talking with him further, because he was so negative about it.

[00:25:22] Bob: So Marcia has to wait all weekend wondering what she might possibly be able to do, but on Monday, things don't get any better. Several people at the bank tell her there's nothing they can do. One employee finally offers...

[00:25:37] Marcia Smith: "I guess I could let you talk to the wire recall department," and's the first time I ever heard there was such a department. And this was Monday. I would say, around 10 o'clock in the morning when in fact technically speaking if they were interested, they could have done a wire recall Friday night.

[00:26:01] Bob: Right, timing is of the essence here. That's really unfortunate.

[00:26:04] Marcia Smith: Yes. And so I did speak with someone in the wire recall department. She did give me a number. I think the number was for the case that she was making to recall the wire, and she told me that they should have told me about that opportunity with the first phone call I made. And I, like I said, spoke with six people before I spoke to her, and it was only that last person that told me because I kept persisting because I felt uneasy that everything that was possible had, had been done. And that's why I ended up having that wire recall person speak to me.

[00:26:54] Bob: But it's too late. By Monday, she's told the wire can't be stopped.

[00:27:01] Marcia Smith: Well, it was very frustrating to me and furthermore, I had already dealt with the police department and two detectives prior to this, that was also frustrating because I do not feel that they were acting expediently. I had filed a particular important form for the FBI, for what end result, I not sure. Certainly so far, not to my own benefit. And so this issue with the bank was on top of disappointment with the way that law enforcement had handled it.

[00:27:44] Bob: Marcia has since filled out paperwork with everyone she can think of, but no one has been able to help.

[00:27:51] Bob: And so the most recent news is you got a letter from, from the bank saying again there's nothing we can do, is that right?

[00:27:58] Marcia Smith: That's the most recent news I've had with regard to the bank. When I reported it, apparently that created a claim unbeknownst to me, and the letter was in response to my claim which of course they just reiterated that it was my, you know, responsibility ultimately, and, and not theirs at all.

[00:28:24] Bob: So within just a few days, Marcia has to accept the loss of her daughter to cancer, and the theft of about $75,000 from her bank. And there's also a new baby in the family.

[00:28:40] Bob: Now how could all of this life activity, how could that not have something to do with what you went through here with the bank? I mean of course they're connected, right?

[00:28:46] Marcia Smith: It's hard to think that it could not have touched my reaction, and I think perhaps in this way; I didn't realize that I was more needy than usual. I mean more needy than I would have suspected I was for having lost my daughter, because you are coping. You are in denial, you know, you're being strong. You know you’re; you're trying to go on for your other family members as well as my daughter, you know. And ... it puts you in a place where that you don't even consciously realize you're in, I think.

[00:29:34] Bob: And now Marcia has been put in a place, well, a place that just makes her life that much more difficult.

[00:29:42] Bob: This is a lot of money to you, right?

[00:29:44] Marcia Smith: It's a lot of money. It was devastating the amount of money, and I, like so many others, I'm not complaining, I'm thankful for it, live, live on Social Security. Uh, I’ve made some pretty frugal choices in my life and so I'm in the habit of living you know, close to my Social Security income. However, things come along and things will come along that mean you need something to fall back on, unless you want to fall back on your children, you know, which I don't, or your siblings, which I don't. And so this, for the most part, uh amount of money I had ironically was through my parents, directly from my father who lived to be 95. And so I had had it for a time but I had held onto it, and I had never used any of this amount for anything frivolous or even necessary, like repairing my home, you know.

[00:30:58] Bob: This criminal stole the money that your, your parents provided for you.

[00:31:02] Marcia Smith: Exactly.

[00:31:04] Bob: Yet another trauma Marcia has to live through now. The criminal stole money their parents saved their whole lives to give her for emergencies, money she never even spent on home repairs, that she was saving for a rainy day.

[00:31:19] Bob: We asked Chase about Marcia's situation, and they sent us this statement:

"These types of scams are heartbreaking. We urge all consumers to ignore phone, text, or internet requests for money or access to their computer of bank accounts. Legitimate companies won't make these requests."

[00:31:38] Bob: There's just so many frustrating things about Marcia's story. What if the bank acted quicker to recall her transfer, or police responded more aggressively? But one thing that went wrong in this situation that we'd like to highlight is Marcia's efforts to find a phone number for a big company. She used a search engine to look for Amazon's number and was presented with a number that led her right into the arms of a criminal instead. This situation is more common than you'd think. The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about it back in 2020. In fact, back then AARP reported about a very similar story in which a victim went online looking for Amazon's number and ended up a victim of a tech support scam. But it's not just Amazon. Plenty of online companies have seen their customers hijacked by criminals who place fraudulent ads on services like Google or who manipulate a search engine's algorithm to rank high in the organic search results. It's sometimes call malvertising, malicious advertising. My next guest has written extensively about this problem, particularly in the travel industry.

[00:32:44] I'm Christopher Elliott, and I'm a consumer advocate. I publish a website called "Elliott.org - The Elliott Report" and a newsletter called "Elliott Confidential."

[00:32:54] Bob: How long have you been doing this consumer advocate thing?

[00:32:58] Christopher Elliott: Oh gosh, oh... about 30 years at least I've been a consumer advocate. And uh, yeah, I've just, you know, I started and never stopped, I guess.

[00:33:11] Bob: Christopher's syndicated columns have appeared in hundreds of publications including the New York Times and USA Today, and he's red hot about this customer service hijacking issue.

[00:33:24] Christopher Elliott: The problem here is that companies don't answer their phones or they put you on hold forever, and people want to get through to someone. And so that's where the scammers see an opportunity.

[00:33:36] Bob: And, and how does it work?

[00:33:37] Christopher Elliott: Well what the scammers are doing are creating web pages that have fake customer service phone numbers on them. And so when you will, when you google the phone number for a company that these phone numbers will pop up. And it's not just looking for the phone numbers, you're looking for a particular keyword which is "How do I get through to someone at (insert name of company) without a long wait?" So they're looking for something in particular, and what the scammers are doing, it's very clever is they know how to game the search engines and so they are creating pages that, that specifically target those key words; "How do I get through to this company without a long wait" or "How do I get customer service faster at (insert name of company)?"

[00:34:31] Bob: Give me examples of companies that you have heard this happening to.

[00:34:34] Christopher Elliott: Well, it's mostly airlines that I have heard it happening to, and the reason is the airlines don't like to answer their phones. They like to put people on hold, send them to one of those phone trees, where they, you know, wait until they're disconnected. But it's happening all over.

[00:34:50] Bob: And the end result can be as painful as what happened to Marcia.

[00:34:55] Bob: But how common is a story like that? How often do you hear something like that?

[00:34:59] Christopher Elliott: It's too common. It's, unfortunately, way too common. I mean I get emails like this on a fairly regular basis. I don't know if I would call it an epidemic yet, but we're getting pretty close to it. The search engines are being manipulated, leveraged for nefarious purposes. And this is one of the worst things that can happen, is you know you put your trust in Google, and you think that when you are searching for the customer service phone number that you're actually going to get a customer service phone number. And you're not.

[00:35:32] Bob: These criminals know how to essentially intercept consumers who are trying to fix a problem with a large corporation and instead, they get hijacked and they get sent down this rabbit hole that eventually costs them sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, right?

[00:35:45] Christopher Elliott: Oh, it costs people, you know, it's not just tens of thousands of dollars then, we're talking about potentially millions, even tens of millions of dollars that the scammers are taking because you know for each, each of these cases that I've dealt with, it's been thousands of dollars that they've taken, and some, in some cases they've been able to keep them money.

[00:36:01] Bob: One of the reasons the scam works is because consumers who are trying to get in touch with companies are often under time pressure, frustrated, looking for an immediate answer. Think about an airline passenger who just had their flight canceled, and he's trying to avoid getting stuck at an airport.

[00:36:18] Christopher Elliott: Criminals want you to make a, a spur of the moment decision that will benefit them, and you know a great example of that is when you call a company and they say, "Oh, your credit card has been compromised. We need to act right now before more damage is done. But in the travel sphere, which is where I do a lot of my work, if you're stuck at an airport and you need customer service fast, and the, the airline is putting you on hold, you're going to fall for something like this because you're, you're going to go, and you're going to google, "How do I get through to British Airways faster?" And then a bogus phone number will come up, and you've just been scammed. So they, I would say that scammers know that if you, you give the, if you give a victim enough time to think about it, they're going to realize that this is a scam. So you want to give them as little time as possible, put the victim under as much pressure as possible so that they make a bad decision.

[00:37:20] Bob: It seems to me that we've beaten consumers down to the point that they, they, they are ready to just give up and/or, you know, look for any alternative and, and that's, that's again another ripe, uh that's ripe territory for criminals.

[00:37:36] Christopher Elliott: That's absolutely true. I think people are so, people are so desperate now just to get through to someone from the company and talk.

[00:37:48] Bob: So what's the right way to get through to customer service?

[00:37:52] Christopher Elliott: Well, one of the things that I would say is, don't go online and look for a, a customer service phone number. You know don't go on your favorite search engine, Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, because search engines can easily be manipulated by scammers. So instead, go directly to the company's website. I'll give you a little hack. If you are looking for a phone number and it's not immediately available, you can just go to the search engine and type the word site: and the URL, so Apple.com for example, and then a space, and then customer service phone number, and usually what that'll do is it'll tell the search engine to just search that website for that keyword. And so you know that you're, you're not going outside of that website. You're just searching the company's website for a customer service phone number. That's what I would do. And you know if you do need to go outside of a, of the company's website because they're not providing a service that you want, go to a trusted website that lists the phone numbers of, of these companies.

[00:39:08] Bob: I think that's a really important point, but I don't want to uh, miss this point. We tell people constantly, when you are, you know, have a problem with a company, you know don't just answer a call or a text. You know make sure you got to the company website yourself, go to the phone number on the back of your credit card, for example, don't just answer the call that says it's from the bank, um, but I think most people hear that as, well, go to Google and look for the right phone number. And so I feel like, like we're, we're now asking an awful lot of people that we've given this sort of advice to for a long time. Go online and find the phone number. Well, they can't quite go online and find the phone number. Now they have to do it a particular way and remember it in the middle of this crisis. I feel like that's a, even more of a challenge for some people.

[00:39:52] Christopher Elliott: Oh it is. People should not have to do this. It, it's terrible that we have to give all this advice. We should be able to trust a search engine. We should be able to know that we're going to get the right phone number when we do a search.

[00:40:06] Bob: But Chris, who spends his days helping consumers resolve problems with corporations has another piece of advice for consumers looking to reach companies. Calling isn't necessarily the best way.

[00:40:18] Christopher Elliott: As I keep saying, that's really the wrong way of resolving a customer service problem. You want to stay off the phone. You want to take your time, send a message or an email so that you have a paper trail, evidence that you've contacted the company. And the build on that paper trail, wait for their response. Give the company a little bit of time. You know build, build your case. This is a lot like a, a court case. Build your case. Make sure you have all the documentation, and then if, you know, you need to, you can always forward that to a manager or supervisor. The scammers are preying on people who desperately need an answer right now. And uh, so if you can avoid having a situation like that, then you probably can avoid the scam. A lot of people, once they think about their problem, they're like, oh yeah, I probably could have maybe waited a day or two for a response, or I could have gone online and initiated a chat instead of having to have this answered in real time by a real person. A, a lot of uh consumers, particularly the 55+ crowd, they're used to going and calling the company on the phone and getting customer service, but nowadays, you know, you can go to companies' website, you can go to their Facebook page, and you can get a, you can initiate a chat or um, send an email, and you can get customer service, uh that's actually much better than what you would be getting on the phone.

[00:41:45] Bob: Now you said, because I, I believe the victim in this story is, is one of those consumers and people still like to call and get a human being, so her first impulse is to call Amazon and talk to customer service. But it sounds to me like you've already hinted at this; in today’s world, you're much better off typing something somewhere so that there's a paper trail. So try to convince people who still want to use the phone that there's a better way.

[00:42:08] Christopher Elliott: There's almost always a better way. I mean if you're stuck at the airport and you need to call the airline to rebook your ticket, maybe. You know if you're, oh, here's another one. If your washing machine exploded and you need to know what to do next, by all means. If you're stuck by the roadside and you need to call your car insurance company, yeah. Go for it. But there's very few instances where you really need to have one of those real time phone conversations with a company. Usually everything can be done by text, in a chat, or in an email.

[00:42:43] Bob: And it is, but I think that the, the bottom line that I want to establish with you is, you cannot google for a company phone number and trust the results that you get.

[00:42:53] Christopher Elliott: That is absolutely true. You can't google a phone number and trust the results.

[00:42:59] Bob: So, once again, if you get an unexpected call or email or text from a company about a problem with your account, disconnect. If they call, don't keep talking to them. Contact the company directly yourself instead, using a phone number you know is valid, say the bank toll-free number on the back of your credit card. Or maybe the number on your monthly statement that you get in the mail. Or, if you don't need an answer right away, you try an email or chat, using a website that you know is valid.

[00:43:31] Bob: And just an extra note of gratitude for this episode we are always thankful for the wonderful work that our volunteers do, who work the phone lines at the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline which is 877-908-3360. They are available Monday through Friday from 8am to 8 pm and the work they do is wonderful. But a particular note of gratitude for this episode which came to us through a phone call and through helpful volunteers at the Fraud Watch Network.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:44:04] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

You’ve heard the advice: When you receive an unexpected phone call from a company, hang up and call its verified phone number. But can you trust an internet search to find a valid number? Criminals have figured out how to deceive search engines including Google and put fake phone numbers in search results that look like the real thing. This malvertising, or malicious advertising, can lead to disaster for consumers like Marcia whose search for Amazon’s customer service number goes very wrong.

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