Thursday, March 12, 2015

They Call You, You Can't Call Them

If someone calls you asking to do business, ask them for a call back number.  If they can't provide one, hang up.

I got an odd phone call today from someone who claimed to be from Merrill Lynch.   It turned out to be legitimate, but when he stared asking me for my birthdate, I just said, "I'll call you later."

(The call was about a "rewards" program.  If you have an account with Merrill Edge, linked to a BoA account, all bank fees are waived, foreign transaction fees are waived, and trades are free.   You do have to have a minimum balance in your account.  Since I have a trading account, it was no big deal to move it to Merrill.  And $0 trades beats $6.99 from Fidelity or $9.99 from E*TRADE or Ameritrade, any day!).

What got me thinking, though, about these sorts of calls, is that oftentimes, people call you trying to sell you something, and when you say, "Gee, I'll have to call you back" they don't have a number where they can be reached.   Con-artists are famous for this.  Invention brokers use "boiler rooms" of telemarketers to call "prospects" who responded to ads, and then they use the "hard sell" to get them to fork over money.

They call you, usually in the evening hours (7-9 PM) but if you try to call them, all you get is a recording - if you can reach them at all.  This is by design.  They use VoIP lines and spoof the caller ID, so you never know where they really are located.  You ask for a mailing address, they give you a P.O. Box or a "Suite Number" address that is a mail drop.  They want to make it hard to track them down.

And this goes for all sorts of con artists.

Most legitimate businesses, on the other hand, have phone numbers and street addresses.  If you say, "I'll call you back" they have a number you can reach them at. 

It struck me that this is one pretty good indicia to tell whether you are dealing with a crook or not.  If someone calls and pressures you to do something (buy a product, buy a service, pay a debt they allege you owe, whatever) just derail the process by asking for their full name, phone number, street address, location, etc.

The slippery ones will say evasive things.  Oftentimes, I have asked for a name and get a garbled response - it sounds like they are sneezing.

Of course, there are two exceptions to this rule:
1.  Just because someone provides you with a return phone number, address, name, contact information, etc. doesn't mean they are legitimate.   In other words, the reverse of the rule is not always true.

2.  There are some large companies, like your utility company, where operators provide only first names (or numbers, with the IRS) and it is difficult, if not impossible, to call a person back directly.   This does not mean they are con artists, only difficult to deal with.    The exception to this exception of the rule, of course is Cable companies - that are all con artists.
I checked my e-mail after the nice man from Merrill called, and he had e-mailed me as well and provided a link to the rewards program.   Might as well take them up on free trades and no ATM fees, right?

Sometimes they throw little things like this at us, not based on how much business we do (indeed, my trading account really doesn't generate much revenue for them, but this illustrates how the wealthier get better deals and the poorer get raw ones).

For example, Bank of America offers free admission to select museums on certain days of the month.  AT&T offers free WiFi, if you are an AT&T customer, and are visiting certain hotels.  These things don't cost any extra, and they are not tied to high-interest-rate credit cards or other odious offers (I respectfully declined BoA's offer of an enhanced "rewards" credit card, thank you).

But getting back to the point of this posting, if someone calls you, and they have no way allowing you to call them back, think about where the relationship is going....