How telephone-based scams work

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The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office issued a warning this week about a number of telephone-based scams on the rise that use “caller ID spoofing” to trick people into revealing personal data or sending a con artist money.

Scammers use the technology to falsify the phone number or name relayed as the caller ID, disguising their identities and making it appear as though they are calling from a legitimate entity, such as a bank or government agency.

“The use of ID spoofing is insidious, very crafty,” said Basil Merenda, director of the AG’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Under one growing scenario, thieves claim to be from Microsoft or a technology repair service, alleging they have detected viruses or other malicious software on a consumer’s computer.

Believing that the caller is legitimate, the victim may turn over passwords, account numbers or other personal information, or be directed to a website where malware is secretly downloaded onto their computer, which does the job of stealing the personal information.

Con artists also have been using spoofing technology to masquerade as sweepstakes companies, utility bill collectors and even the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. The common thread is that the scammers ask for an immediate payment, usually via wire or prepaid debit card.

In the case of the AG’s office, callers claim to be collecting on unpaid debts, threatening to charge people with theft by deception and arrest them if they don’t make a payment within 24 hours.

Similar calls have been made by thieves posing as IRS agents trying to collect overdue taxes. Because these types of scams often are operated from outside the country, they’re hard to stop and the money that gets stolen is nearly impossible to recover, Mr. Merenda said.

“If you aren’t on your guard, unfortunately, you get taken to the cleaners,” he said.

Consumers can cut their risk by refusing to give out sensitive personal information on the phone — such as Social Security numbers, birthdates and account numbers — especially if the calls were unsolicited, the AG’s office said.

“Never let emotion or fear overcome your common sense,” the office said. “If you get a call for money … slow down and verify everything. Don’t let anyone rush you.”

To report a suspected scam, call the state’s Bureau of Consumer Protection at 800-441-2555 or file a complaint at

Patricia Sabatini: or 412-263-3066.

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