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Utility Bill Scam Targets Grieving Family

Criminals pretend to be the power company

spinner image a woman and two bills are inside three light bulbs

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Lorraine is grieving her father when she receives a letter claiming to be from Florida Power & Light notifying her to contact them. A kind "operator" named Anna walks her through the process of switching the account from her father to setting up a new one in her name and paying a deposit. A few weeks later, a notice from the real Florida Power & Light arrives in Lorraine’s mailbox and she realizes Anna wasn’t who she said she was. The criminals have gotten away with the $300 deposit, and the information they have stolen is much more valuable.

spinner image infographic quote that reads: "they have my name, my address, my social, my date of birth. everything i have fought so hard to protect my entire life, my good credit, everything."
Full Transcript


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

[00:00:03] Lorraine Robertson: It just says, "We recently received information indicating that the account holder has passed away. Sincerest condolences," and it says, you know, "You need to call this number or return this form."

[00:00:15] Lorraine Robertson: Gut-wrenching. That's the word I can use, it's just gut-wrenching. Everything I have fought so hard to protect my entire, you know, in these later parts of my life, my good credit, everything.


[00:00:32] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan.


[00:00:36] Bob: Scams involving utility companies are relatively common. You get an email or a letter or a phone call threatening that your power will be cut off unless you make an immediate payment, for example. But there's a new flavor of this scam that really need to tell you about in which criminals get you to call them. And as you'll hear from today's guest, they will do, well just about anything, to make you make that phone call. Meet Lorraine Robertson of West Palm Beach, Florida.

[00:01:09] Bob: And how long have you been in West Palm Beach?

[00:01:10] Lorraine Robertson: I've been living here in West Palm since 2015.

[00:01:15] Bob: And did, did you move there to be back with your parents, is that right?

[00:01:19] Lorraine Robertson: I actually moved, bought this house so I could move my parents in with me.

[00:01:23] Bob: On nice. That's an, an amazing gift for your parents and for your whole family I would think.

[00:01:28] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, my mother was, you know my dad needed some help with my mom, you know, she was developing, was in the early stages of dementia, you know it was a lot for him to deal with too, so he asked me if you know I could help. So of course, absolutely. They'd been, you know, did for their family their entire life.

[00:01:46] Bob: By day Lorraine works in finance at a car dealership where she often finds herself working with customers' most personal information, protecting it. It's a job she takes very seriously. You'll find out why that's important soon. But Lorraine also takes her job as a daughter very seriously. Living with her aging parents is a gift, she told me. She says that she wouldn't change it for the world, especially because she recently had to say goodbye to her dad.

[00:02:16] Lorraine Robertson: I had time with my father that, you know, is irreplaceable, and I still have my mother. I could fill your entire show with just stories about my father and what a great man he was, and everybody that met him loved him. And that's the truth ... everybody loved him. My father didn't have any enemies. He was, he was a good man, he really was. He was a good man. He brought his family to America when I was 10 months old because he wanted us to have a better life. We came from Scotland.

[00:02:30] Bob: Oh wow.

[00:02:40] Lorraine Robertson: And he knew growing up what a tough life it had been for him. And my father had gone to school at a very early age, as you do in Scotland, to be an electrician. And he came to America, brought his young family and uh, you know started a better life for us here. We first lived in Fort Lauderdale, and then we moved up into an up-and-coming area that was just being developed, Margate in Coral Springs, right there. And we, my, we built a house there, my father we had, they had, they got their first house.

[00:03:11] Bob: And he worked as an electrician for many decades I'm guessing, right?

[00:03:14] Lorraine Robertson: Absolutely, yes, owned his own business.

[00:03:16] Bob: Did you ever go to work with him?

[00:03:19] Lorraine Robertson: I did when I was younger, went to, you know, I did everything I could with him. Go to golf with him, (chuckles), yeah, just, yeah just so I could hang out with him, absolutely. I know how to do a lot of, I can put up a ceiling fan, I can...

[00:03:33] Bob: (laughs)

[00:03:33] Lorraine Robertson: If my water heater stops working, I know how to check and see why.

[00:03:38] Bob: I might ask you to come over to my house a little after this phone call, I have a few electrical things...

[00:03:43] Lorraine Robertson: I'm very handy.

[00:03:45] Bob: I believe it.

[00:03:46] Bob: They'd always been close. Lorraine told me her dad was her best friend, so back in 2015 when Lorraine's parents started to slow down and things were getting harder at home, Lorraine's dad came to her and asked for help.

[00:04:01] Lorraine Robertson: You know it was just, you know, he said, "Your mom's, you know, it's getting tougher for her and you know for me, I'm," 'cause he was home with her all day and you know things were beginning, he, you know, he had had some difficulties with his health as well. I mean my father had a heart condition, had a heart attack early in life and, and he had open heart surgery and you know that was where his onus came from. He didn't have complications from anything else other than he had bad circulation. So he was, you know, having a lot of difficulty with that.

[00:04:30] Bob: Lorraine got to spend quality time with her parents as they aged at home, but it wasn't always easy.

[00:04:38] Lorraine Robertson: So it was tough in the last couple of years for him. It was, uh, circulation was bad. You know the limbs weren't getting circulatory so you know toes and stuff were starting to die off, so they, you know they were starting to take him piece by piece.

[00:04:53] Bob: Oh.

[00:04:55] Lorraine Robertson: So he had had an amputation, and they were getting ready to do another one, and he just didn't, he didn't want any more of that. He had had enough. He was 87. So he, you know, it was, he made up his mind that he had had enough, so.

[00:05:10] Bob: He went when he wanted to. Good for him.

[00:05:12] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, he really did. He had said in September that, he says, "I don't think I'll be here toward, till the, you know through the end of the year," and he made it till December 12th, so. I think he knew what he was talking about.

[00:05:23] Bob: Well I'm sorry that you lost him.

[00:05:25] Lorraine Robertson: Me too. My best friend, my confidante, my hero.

[00:05:29] Bob: Lorraine is heartbroken. But the grief is complicated by ... well you know everything happens at once.

[00:05:37] Bob: Your mom got sick right after that too, right?

[00:05:40] Lorraine Robertson: My mother got very sick after that. She wound up having kidney stones and had to, I had to have her in the hospital at the end of the year, so we were, right after Christmas in the hospital with my mother, and then we found out that she's going to have to have surgery.

[00:05:54] Bob: I mean, first off, I can't imagine a person having more things going on than what you just described to me.

[00:06:01] Lorraine Robertson: It was a lot.

[00:06:02] Bob: Yeah, yeah, you know.

[00:06:03] Lorraine Robertson: I was planning my father's celebration of life.

[00:06:07] Bob: Still, Lorraine takes her duty of following her dad's last wishes very, very seriously.

[00:06:14] Lorraine Robertson: Funerals are very upsetting and you know hard on people. My father, he had been to too many of them he said, didn't want that. And he made that perfectly clear many years ago, and he wanted to have a celebration. He wanted everybody to have another drink on Bill. And that's what we did. We had a really nice celebration of life and uh, many people came. And everybody got to have another drink with Bill. So it was good.

[00:06:38] Bob: That's very beautiful.

[00:06:39] Lorraine Robertson: And I was planning that. My niece was helping me of course, my, my niece Heather was involved heavily in doing all that, his granddaughter, so. Um, yeah, they, and his grandson, I mean you know, my family of course they, they get involved. They unite.

[00:06:53] Bob: Of course, of course, and everybody got to get up and have their say about Bill, right?

[00:06:57] Lorraine Robertson: A lot of people had their say, yep. And uh it was nice. So like I said, all the memories about my father, everybody saying you know the same things; wonderful man, great man, looked like another father to me for some of my friends that I've been friends with since I was a little girl they've known them, so.


[00:07:14] Bob: And right in the middle of all that emotion, losing her father, worrying about her sick mom, dealing with all the family and friends and that last drink on Bill, Lorraine gets an unexpected letter in the mail from FPL - Florida Power & Light.

[00:07:30] Lorraine Robertson: And it just says, "We recently received information indicating that the account holder has passed away. Sincerest condolences," and it says, you know, "You need to call this number or return this form."

[00:07:44] Bob: Lorraine's electricity is in her dad's name. And the letter from the electric company says she has to update her account. Well she calls the number and a woman named Anna answers the phone and it's actually even a little bit more complicated than that. Anna tells Lorraine she has to close her current account and open a new one.

[00:08:03] Lorraine Robertson: I talked to her in the afternoon, and Anna, you know, of course I said, "I got this letter about my father passing away." And she was very nice. "I'm so sorry for your loss." And, and I, of course, questioned why I had to open up a new account since, I said it's my home, but, you know my just... she said, "No, it has to be, and so, it has to be in this name now." You know I had already been through this with the water company here in the City of West Palm Beach. And they insisted that I also had to put my name on the account and give them a new security deposit.

[00:08:37] Bob: Anna is incredibly kind. Changing a name like this is another one of those terrible moments that make a death feel so final. And Lorraine starts to cry. But Anna patiently listens, the two talk about Lorraine's dad for a while, and then Anna makes opening a new account as easy as possible. She takes all the details right while Lorraine is on the phone.

[00:09:00] Lorraine Robertson: And as I'm giving her all my information, yes, my name is now going to be, you know, it's not going to be under William Robertson, it's going to be under Lorraine Robertson. She gives me a new FPL account number and everything because she is opening an account with FPL as I'm on the phone with her. As I'm on the phone with her, I'm, of course, getting emails from FPL. You're closing this account. You're opening this account. At that address, my name, all this is, she's like, you're going to get an email from me in the next few minutes, it'll come through.

[00:09:35] Bob: But there's a small hiccup with the transaction. There's a balance left to be paid on the old account.

[00:09:42] Lorraine Robertson: She's telling me I have to give her $367 and, I give her my debit card and my Bank of America, my debit card, kicked it. It wouldn't accept it. I just said, "You know what, it's probably just, I, "I have so much going on right now," were my exact words, "I have so much going on right now," I said, "Let me just use one of my credit cards." "So I did. I used your credit card, and it went through. But I only put it through for 300." And she said, I said, "I don't know why it only went through for 300." And she said, "Don't worry about it. We'll get the $67, we'll put it on your bill. When you get your first bill..." blah, blah, blah. And I said, "Oh, okay, great. Not a problem." That was it. I was all set with Anna.

[00:10:21] Bob: Well, not quite all set. Like many Florida residents, Lorraine has solar panels at her house. And she gets credit from the power company for electricity she sends back onto the grid. Lorraine notices the new account doesn't reflect these credits, so three weeks later she finds the number and reaches out to Anna again.

[00:10:41] Lorraine Robertson: I called her back and said, "I'm not getting credit for my solar panels," and she said, "Oh my goodness. I will look into that and find out why," and then called me back and told me I was going to be getting a credit.

[00:10:54] Bob: But about a month later Lorraine gets another piece of mail from FPL that she doesn't expect. It says she hasn't been paying her bill.

[00:11:04] Lorraine Robertson: This bill is telling me that I'm past due. And it says it must be paid in order for me to, you know, avoid disconnection of my account. You can imagine my surprise. I said, "I've never gotten a late notice in my life on anything." On any of my, you know, no water bills, no electric bills. You just, they've always been automatically paid, so we've never had any issues.

[00:11:27] Bob: So Lorraine calls the number on that late notice bill, and things get very confusing very fast.

[00:11:36] Lorraine Robertson: And FPL says, "You didn't pay any money on this account, that's why money is due." And I said, "No, no, no, no, no. Wait a minute. I paid this and this and this," and then they switched me to another gentleman at that time and he immediately said, "You've been a victim of fraud."

[00:11:53] Bob: You've been a victim of fraud, but she paid the balance she owed, she opened this new account. Lorraine's frustrated, angry, confused. But then she's put on the phone with a man who has a familiar name and that helps calm her down.

[00:12:08] Lorraine Robertson: The first gentleman I spoke to, his name was William. Which I, as soon as I found out his name, I said, oh thank God, 'cause that's my father's name and I just said, okay, now I know I'm going to get some help.

[00:12:18] Bob: In the middle of all of this chaos though, it must have been comforting to talk to someone named William.

[00:12:22] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, as soon as he said that, I said, "Well wait, what's your name?" And he said, "William." And I looked up and I said, "Thanks, Dad." (chuckles) Yeah, I just, I said, okay, I said, it's been very, and it was, it's very difficult also to talk to a human being when you're trying to get through to these companies.

[00:12:37] Bob: An FPL operator tells Lorraine that the number she called, the number that was on that original notice about her father passing away, is a fake. And Anna, Anna who listened as Lorraine cried about her dad who had just died, Anna is a criminal. Whoever she is, whoever they are, they now have Lorraine's $300 credit card payment, but much worse, they have all Lorraine's personal financial information.

[00:13:06] Lorraine Robertson: Normally of course, as soon as my bank would have kicked it, I would have caught it immediately, and but the sad part is is it was all too late anyway. Because I really don't think that they were after the money. It's $300, but it's my information. They have my name, my address, my social, my date of birth. Everything I have fought so hard to protect my entire, you know, in these later parts of my life, my good credit, everything.

[00:13:32] Bob: Describe to me and, and so this, so I want people to understand this. You know in the middle of everything else going on in your life, what was it like to have to deal with this?

[00:13:40] Lorraine Robertson: Oh, gut-wrenching. That's the word I can use, it's just gut-wrenching. And you feel so foolish that you let them you know, get you. Because I'm always so vigilant with everything, you know, don't open any emails, don't do this, don't do that. Don't talk to, you know, don't give people information. It's uh, I just, I felt like, again, that these individuals are looking for people that they can, at your lowest points in your life, face it, when you lose someone that you love no matter who it is. It's very difficult on your, your loved ones that are left behind. You just don’t think about things as clearly, especially as you said, I have, Bob, I had so much going on. I had my mother sick, my father had just passed away, I'm trying to, you know, get myself ready to go, because I had taken a leave from work. I have, was getting ready to go back to work. Planning his end-of-life celebration, you know trying to keep everything together. Get my mother to doctor's appointments which were almost every day at this point, 'cause she, you know she had a, she was pretty sick. She had a severe UTI. They kept her hospitalized for four days and on heavy duty antibiotics. So and it was, and you just, you're, I was at, I was exhausted, mentally, and physically exhausted going back and forth to the hospital, trying to you know make phone calls, keep, get everything done. It was, it was a lot.

[00:14:56] Bob: Lorraine still can't believe what an actress this Anna was on the phone.

[00:15:01] Lorraine Robertson: You know when you start, I mean it was still fresh for me, you know I, you know my eyes, this is terrible that I have to, you know I have to do this. I said, even just you know taking his name off. I said, it's something so terrible, but it's so final, I said. You know, it's emotional.

[00:15:14] Bob: And she heard you cry and still went through with all this.

[00:15:17] Lorraine Robertson: Oh yeah. She heard me tell her, you know, I just lost my best friend, this is so difficult. Them, him and my mother were married for 66 years together, you know, they met when they were 15 on a blind date. I mean told her everything.

[00:15:30] Bob: That's amazing that someone could do that, it really just is amazing.

[00:15:33] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah. And sit there and say to you, oh, and you know, and I mean just academy award level. And I think I'm talking to this wonderful woman at FPL.

[00:15:42] Bob: And that somebody in the world is out there looking for families who just lost someone who just died, and to take advantage of them. I mean that's just disgusting right?

[00:15:53] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, that's what they're doing.

[00:15:55] Bob: Oh God.

[00:15:55] Lorraine Robertson: They want to just; they don't care who you are. I mean she was very nice on the phone of course, you know, she was, "I'm so sorry about your loss." And you know she's asking me you know, "Were you close to your father?" "Oh God, yes," you know, I said, "Yes, very close." They prey on you when you are at your lowest point because you just, you're not thinking clearly, you know. You're sad.

[00:16:16] Bob: Yeah, you're filling out a bunch of forms, you, you mentioned this already did happen to you with another utility bill, basically, right?

[00:16:22] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, my water company. So they had just, you know, a week before said, "Yes, you're going to have to open up a new account, you're going to have to put down a security deposit." Which you know, again, why these utility companies make you do that when you're going through all this. It would be so easy just to say, "No problem, we understand. You're going through a terrible time. Let's just change it from one name, first name, to the first name of another."

[00:16:47] Bob: As Lorraine thinks back on what happened during her exchange, it's pretty astonishing. The woman who said she was Anna seemed to even know all about solar power credits.

[00:16:59] Lorraine Robertson: She even said, "Well you might have to do an inspection." And I said, "What? They already inspected it. I don't need an inspection." And she said, "Well let me call you back." And she called me back. She called me back and said, "You will be getting the credit, everything's set up, you don't have to worry about it." Like she had talked to a supervisor at FPL.

[00:17:18] Bob: But she also knew, knew the terminology, right? I mean she's clearly at least...

[00:17:21] Lorraine Robertson: She knew everything.

[00:17:22] Bob: Yeah, she's familiar, I mean as if she worked there. Do you suspect they were, you know, reading obituaries or something like that? Is that how they found out about your dad?

[00:17:29] Lorraine Robertson: It must be, it has to be that that, there's no, and because I hon--, I didn't put anything out there about my father. I didn't put anything on Facebook. I didn't put anything, you know, it wasn't till after his celebration of life and things that I put something on my Facebook, just, you know, for my family in Scotland and other places like that. I mean of course they all knew, but um, you know just to put something out there. But as I said, this was, I don't know how they found it, but there must be a way to search obituaries or, there's some way that they were able to find it. And I'm sure they preyed on many other people doing this too. I know I can't be the only person.

[00:1810] Bob: The acting job was so convincing Lorraine still has trouble believing it all happened sometimes.

[00:18:16] Lorraine Robertson: That's why when they told me I was a fraud victim, I even said, "Are you sure?" The gentleman that did the investigative end of it here for the local news, Ari Hait, said the same thing. "This is one of the best scams I've ever seen," and he's like you, Bob. He's been investigating fraud and scammers for a long, long time. And that's what I said. I said, "I know, that's why I can't believe," and I said, I had to say, "This is so perfect. I thought I really got a letter from FPL."

[00:18:43] Bob: There's, I don't want to say this in any, any way that sounds complimentary, but it sounds almost like the perfect crime.

[00:18:49] Lorraine Robertson: It is.

[00:18:50] Bob: Yeah.

[00:18:50] Lorraine Robertson: I said, it's genius.

[00:18:52] Bob: Heinous. I mean to prey on people who just lost a loved one. But sadly, it happens. I remember as a kid when a family member passed away, it was always someone's job to stay at the house during the funeral because we believed that criminals read obituaries and knew a home would probably be empty, easy to burglarize during services. But this digital version of that kind of crime is easier and less risky for criminals. That's why Lorraine was anxious to speak with us to tell everyone about what happened to her. Florida Power & Light has a warning on its website published just in March, about what it calls a new tactic designed to get victims to call an impostor phone number in trying to reach FPL. That warning mentions hijacked internet services, it reads in part, "We have confirmed that there are numerous phone numbers online that attempt to lure victims by falsely claiming to be connected to FPL," but Lorraine's version of this crime is far more elaborate.

[00:19:58] Lorraine Robertson: That was the only reason why, honestly, Bob, I wanted to tell people what had happened. You know like I told my aunt who, very heavily involved in her senior center where she lives down in Margate, and she's on the board there and she said, "Oh, I'm going to tell everybody." I have a friend who runs an organization up here in West Palm, Seniors Helping Seniors. I made sure that they knew. I also told them that, you know, I had reached out to the local news here, and let them put it on the news here to let people know.

[00:20:27] Bob: Lorraine was able to dispute the $300 charge for their credit card company, but as I've mentioned, it's not the money she's worried about.

[00:20:36] Lorraine Robertson: I don't think it's the money they wanted. $300, but if they were getting $300 several times a day, I'm sure that adds up, but I think it's just my information more than anything that that's what concerns me. Why, what are they going to do with my information?

[00:20:51] Bob: And that part really stings because Lorraine takes financial privacy very seriously.

[00:20:58] Lorraine Robertson: I work in a business that we have to be very careful with protecting people's identities. I run credit for people all day long. I work at a car dealership. I've been a sales manager. I have people's protected information. I protect it like it's my own. So of course, I have been so vig--, and I hear stories from people all the time through you know the years. I've been with this company for 14 years that I work for, and you know they, it's just, they're, it's the same thing. We do everything we can to protect people's information. And now they have all my information out there. And I don't know what they're going to do with it, 'cause for me I just feel like somehow it's not over, so I've, you know, invested into everything that I possibly can, freezing all my accounts, putting a fraud alert out there, putting, you know, a freeze on my credit bureaus, everything that you can do and even having a credit monitoring service now just to make sure that everything's being monitored and no one's trying to apply for anything in my my name. I've even done it under my, on my mother so that, you know, just in case, so.

[00:22:01] Bob: It's really important whenever you contact a company for any reason that you only call a number you know to be valid. Independently verify the number. If you get a notice you didn't expect, no matter how real it looks, always go to an old bill or to the company's website, but make sure you're very confident it's the right website and call a number you know is valid. Lorraine has some other advice too.

[00:22:29] Lorraine Robertson: So I sug--, you know one thing I would suggest to everybody is make sure you have multiple names on your accounts, first and foremost if you're a husband and wife or anything. That's the first thing I've been telling all my friends now, make sure you have two names on your accounts, don't do this to yourselves, 'cause I also have heard that this has happened quite frequently to other people, not being, you know, in the position I was, but also having difficulties with the power company, water companies and getting their names when it was just in their husband's and you know you've got a wife that's left or something. Absolutely, please make sure that you, like right now, if you're a wife and your husband has his name on the electric bill and the water bill and your cable bills. Add your name now. Put your name on. Make sure it's under Mr. and Mrs., or if you're just partners, put it under--, make sure you have it in both names, because if anything happens, these companies will make you put down an additional security deposit, they do. And you face going through what I went through.

[00:23:27] Bob: And she's still going through. Lorraine now has to worry about when this criminal enterprise might try to exploit all this sensitive, personal information they have about her. And she's still taking care of her mom and still grieving for her dad.

[00:23:44] Bob: How is your mom now?

[00:23:45] Lorraine Robertson: She's pretty good. She really is. She's doing well. Today is my parents' anniversary, so today's a tough day for her.

[00:23:51] Bob: And I'm sure a tough day for you too.

[00:23:52] Lorraine Robertson: Yeah, it would have been 67 years today.

[00:23:54] Bob: Thank you for taking time on your parents' anniversary to talk with us. I really appreciate that.

[00:23:58] Lorraine Robertson: Well, Bob, like I said, I do think it's important that people do hear it and find out what, what's happening. You know you've got to protect yourself, and it's so sad that I'm even having to have this conversation.

[00:24:09] Bob: You've probably heard this before, there is no foolproof way to protect yourself from identity theft, especially after your personal information has been stolen. Awareness is your best bet, specifically being aware of what's going on in your credit report of anything suspicious that might be happening with your name or your financial record. To talk about this problem a little more, we invited Mary Ann Miller to speak with us. She is Vice President at a company named Prove which provides identity verification. She's also a fraud and cybercrime executive advisor.

[00:24:43] Bob: So this is a very dastardly crime, beginning with the fact that it's preying on people who's, who've just lost a loved one. Have you heard of this before?

[00:24:50] Mary Ann Miller: Yes, uh, this is definitely the kind of scams that we see regularly, um, impersonation scams, they impersonate either governments or they impersonate financial institutions, or in this case, they impersonated the utility. And this is very common and rising types of scams. They can you know wipe out a person's entire bank account.

[00:25:11] Bob: Lorraine was quite convinced that while the $300 charge uh was seemed to be part of the scam, what they were really after was all her personal information. Ironically, she works at a car dealership and knows a lot about credit and about protecting identity, so she was very worried about that. How worried should she be about that?

[00:25:28] Mary Ann Miller: Yeah, she should be very worried. Usually the way the uh scammers work today and ones that are able to, you know create this kind of complex situation, they're really after more than just getting the $300. They know that obtaining the ability to get the information from the consumer is just the first step. They were able to, since the application was filled out, now the fraudsters don't have to connect the dots. They don't have to have like just her, uh, Lorraine's Social Security number and then figure out what address does that go with, or which date of birth does that go with. Now they have everything in a neat package and they can take that neat package and go and uh you know apply for a lending facility or they can apply for a credit card. They can apply for almost anything that um, an average consumer could, could apply for.

[00:26:16] Bob: Mary Ann has been working in the field of cybercrime and identity theft for a long time. And she's seen some crazy things.

[00:26:25] Mary Ann Miller: One of the wild stories is when early in my career, I was working with a bank uh in Brazil, and I was working on a fraud implementation and during that period of time I noticed that the head of fraud was being very kind of disruptive to our project and getting our project on the road and getting the, the um, fraud monitoring transaction solution up and running with the bank. And then, long story short, we finally got that system up and running. But we found out later that the head of fraud was actually running a major criminal organization within the bank of credit card fraud. And he was...

[00:27:03] Bob: Wow!

[00:27:03] Mary Ann Miller: ...eventually caught and fired, um, but he was the person that we were working with and I finally thought, oh, no wonder he was being so disruptive of our project. It was really going to counteract his big criminal um, you know, enterprise that he had set up. So that was kind of a, a crazy story.

[00:27:20] Bob: I bet it was a bit eye-opening too.

[00:27:22] Mary Ann Miller: Yeah, it was eye-opening. Fortunately, we don't run into that too often. All the fraud folks I usually work with really are mission-driven and very uh, good people. But in this case, it ended up being a very, you know shocking story.

[00:27:34] Bob: Sure, but you know I'm thinking about, every week I talk to someone who is either communicating on the phone or over email or whatnot with someone who is not who they seem to be. And you were having that experience at a very high level, and so I'm sure if, that's probably a lesson you, you have taken with you in, with every exchange. Who knows who this podcast host is who's on the other end of the phone, right?

[00:27:54] Mary Ann Miller: Yeah, that's right, Bob. Who could that be? And uh that's right. I, it's really important yeah that, you know we really, trust is really part of the uh pillar of every organization should have, but also um, that's, you know, something that we should look at, look for in our daily lives.

[00:28:12] Bob: Do you think identity theft is getting worse, or is it getting a little bit better? I know we've, it's a problem we've been working on for a long time. What do you think?

[00:28:19] Mary Ann Miller: I think it's getting worse. And, and I'll, and I'll tell you why I think it is. I think that classically that most, you know, if you think about how accounts were opened, we used our name, our social, date of birth, and our address, maybe a few other pieces of information. But that's all compromised in breaches as we've been talking about. But it really, what it really takes in this day and age is for government agencies, for um, financial institutions, for any kind of experience where you're onboarding to look at other modern controls that are needed to establish is, you know, the answer to the question, you know, is Bob Sullivan or Mary Ann Miller at the other end of that interaction? Because our information is already accessible, what are the other ways that we can tell that that's actually Bob or Mary Ann genuinely at the other end of that interaction.

[00:29:11] Bob: You know I have to say when I'm thinking back to Lorraine's situation, again, that this woman spent a, I don't know, maybe an hour on the phone with her and, and there are these letters would go out. I mean I, and I don't know what to make of this information but Lorraine said to me when she finally got to the right person at Florida Power & Light the, the response was, "Oh yeah, this is happening a lot right now. It's a crime." So clearly this is some sort of mass effort. Boy, it seems like a lot of work on the criminal's part to get this information which only tells me that it's really valuable to them. What do you think?

[00:29:39] Mary Ann Miller: Yeah, I think it is really valuable to, to them, and you know what I think is really important is conversations like we're having today; is to get what I call, get the word out. As each and every person that's listening to this podcast could imagine if they've never heard of this scenario, if now they know about it, they're educated about it, they could look at incoming calls, incoming text messages, incoming emails with more discretion and through the eyes of, is this really a, a government agency trying to contact me? Is this really my bank trying to contact me? Is this really the utility company trying to contact me and not just jump on, I call it waiting for the second beat. It's not just um, you know respond immediately.

[00:30:22] Bob: I like that, waiting for the second beat. Can you explain to me what you mean?

[00:30:25] Mary Ann Miller: I mean that, you know, we often act with urgency. We act right away. We think that if we, receive a text message, we receive an email, we receive um, some kind of communication, we think we need to respond to it immediately. And I like the, you know, kind of 24-hour rule. You know, don't respond right away. Wait a little while and do your own research. Check and call the, the utility company directly and say, "And did you contact me?" Call your bank directly and ask them, "Did you contact me?" You know really, you know call the uh, uh government agency directly and saying, "Did you contact me?" Don't just uh, you know take it for granted that they are reaching out to you. Oftentimes it's not them.

[00:31:11] Bob: You know as Lorraine told me the story, this was, you know, very raw. Her dad had just died and she actually was crying on the phone with this woman, um you know, because there's all these events that happen when someone passes and, and disconnecting their name from your electricity is one of those finality kind of moments. I can't imagine what it's like to be a criminal and listen to someone crying like that and still pull a scam like this. It just seems awful.

[00:31:34] Mary Ann Miller: Yeah, so it's, it's very sad, Bob, and you know what we find is, you know, the criminals will even look through um public notifications of um, people passing, and take a look at that information and then use that information to exploit the family. So this is a good example of that and that's um, definitely a very sad uh method of operation of the, the bad actors.

[00:31:58] Bob: In the past decade, well even longer than that, you've probably heard a lot of stories about criminals stealing large databases of personal information. All that information makes it much easier for criminals to plan these kinds of elaborate crimes where it seems like they know you, know everything about you.

[00:32:18] Mary Ann Miller: I've spent a lot of time in my career looking at different fraud problems and focusing on it, and because of the prevalence of identity theft, it's really a, and I, I mean the fact that I work for an identity company, it's really a focus of my career at this juncture, because I've watched so much of this happen. We just look what happened within the last couple of weeks, there's been a big breach announced; 73 million AT&T phone numbers and personally identifying information was um, actually breached. Um, and I find this particular one probably in my humble opinion, um, one of the most important breaches of the decade because um, the information is freely available on channels like Telegram and it's easily downloadable. Um, so we're seeing that, you know, the information is not only being breached more often, but it's actually being breached at scale and convenience for the bad actors.

[00:33:11] Bob: So these numbers now, 10, 20, 30, 73 million, the numbers are even hard to get your head around.

[00:33:17] Mary Ann Miller: It is, and it almost looks like it's every adult in the US, you know, if you were to sit and think about it and take a big breath, um, these um, databases are just huge and the amount of the information that usually is the name and social, the telephone number, street address, date of birth, your email account, your phone number, it's everything in um, in a very tidy package. It's very um, very easy for the bad actors to take that information and run with it.

[00:33:44] Bob: One thing all consumers should do is routinely check their credit reports every six months or so. It's actually pretty easy and it's free at But sadly, that's not going to tell you about every incident of ID theft.

[00:34:01] Mary Ann Miller: Well it's definitely good to check your credit bureau every year. Just do a, a really good look at it, and make sure there's no accounts, at least lending accounts opened up in your name. Now the other complexity to this, there is no such thing as a, in the US at least in this point, there's no fintech bureau and there's no deposit bureau; there's a credit bureau. So what we don't know as citizens is has my information being exploited to open up a fintech account? Or has my information been exploited to open up a bank account with that lending facility? So in that case I would tell um, the average person, if you get a debit card in the mail and you don't recognize the name of that bank or the name of that fintech, uh make sure you follow up, um, because that's the case when the, the bad actors accidently not change the address in the condition of identity theft, and that means that there could be an account opened up at a fintech uh under your name and you want to make sure that that's been shut down.

[00:35:04] Bob: So I, I'd like to unpack that a bit, 'cause I think that's really important. I mean we've been told forever, you know, get credit reports from the three credit bureaus, um, maybe put a freeze on your credit reports of the three credit bureaus so nobody can open up a, a new lending account, a credit card or whatnot, but you're saying there's other kinds of accounts that criminals might open up and you don't really have a way of knowing.

[00:35:23] Mary Ann Miller: No, that's right. And generally what they do is they open up those accounts and, and I call it, what goes wrong when you don't get identity right, and they use those accounts to um, do a number of things, they're known in the industry as sometimes fake accounts, identity theft accounts. It either can be synthetic, part of you know using your social and other peoples' information to open that up. But once they open up that account, and especially again, if it's going to any credit product, the bad actors do a lot of things with that. They use those accounts to receive the proceeds of scams, you know, like, like many people are victims of today. They use those accounts to commit check fraud or money movement fraud. And in very severe cases and very shocking cases, they'll use it for human crime, uh like money laundering or, or um, you know, they might use it for human trafficking. So it's very important as a consumer, if we do perhaps get that card in the mail, that we do shut those, you know, try to inform someone to shut that account down. But otherwise, those accounts could get opened up and used like that and we won't know about it.

[00:36:28] Bob: Yeah, and I mean if you get a debit card, that's just kind of dumb luck, right? I mean the criminal did something sort of wrong to flag it to your attention. In other, in other cases I'm sitting here wondering, it's kind of like the driver's license problem, right? If somebody opens a driver's license in your name, how are you going to find out about that?

[00:36:42] Mary Ann Miller: That's right, and usually it's in a situation where someone notifies you out of the blue that you know, is this your account? And you say, I don't, I've never heard of that fintech or I've never heard of that bank. And they might be in the middle of an investigation um, about a scam. So um, that's something that, you know, consumers need to keep their eyes and ears open about because of the fact that, you know, the average person just wouldn't even understand that scenario.

[00:37:08] Bob: Okay, so since we've already begun this part of the conversation, it's probably the most important part of the conversation, what are the things that you tell people just in general to do to protect themselves and their identities?

[00:37:18] Mary Ann Miller: Yes, so be aware that identity theft is on the, on the rise. Make sure that you're checking your statements and your bank accounts and your credit bureau on a regular basis. Do the, the really um, important things that you normally do as a consumer, is make sure that if you can protect your information, make sure that you do that. I think that even though it's breached, it's good not to continue to expose it to opportunistic fraudsters, so make sure that, you know, you're not you know when you're throwing away say maybe your bank statements, that you are shredding them, that you do those kind of normal, what I call healthy um, data protection uh routines. Um, and I also think that, you know, wait for the second beat. You know don't respond to scammers. Make sure that you are protecting yourself and not being socially engineered.

[00:38:07] Bob: I know we say it a lot, but always bears repeating. When you get an email, or a phone call, or a knock at the door, any contact you don't expect, don't do anything. Stop, look up the appropriate government agency or company on your own, and if at all possible, talk to a trusted family member or a friend before you even call them back, just to get a reality check. If you've been a victim of ID theft, Mary Ann recommends reaching out to the Identify Theft Resource Center at And of course, you can always contact AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.


[00:38:59] 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:, 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: Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Becky Dodson; 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.



The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.


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