Friday, October 26, 2018

The Knee Brace Scam

When somebody calls you offering something for free, chances are it isn't.

Like most Americans, I've been getting an increasing number of annoying sales calls on my cell phone.  Yes, these calls are illegal under the Do Not Call act, but these folks operate with impunity. Most of them are located offshore and thus don't have to worry about being prosecuted.

Others, operating within the United States, set up shell companies that are hard to trace and realize that most consumers will give up before trying to sue them. The one flaw with a Do Not Call Registry is that it only allows you to personally sue people who call you illegally, and most people don't have the resources, time, or knowledge to know how to sue such people. I successfully sued someone under the SPAM Fax law, but even then it wasn't easy to do.

Of course, the problem for these robo-callers is that they want you to pick up the phone.  And increasingly, people don't pick up the phone at all.  People send and receive text messages instead of voice phone calls, and only old people and codgers like me actually make voice calls.

Thus, the phone call acts as a perfect filtering mechanism.  Only people who are doddering old fools will pick up the phone anymore these days, so you know if somebody picks up the phone chances are you can sell them something.

Caller ID was supposed to help eliminate a lot of problems with phone fraud.  The idea was that if you could see somebody's phone number on your on the display of your phone, the person calling to be less likely to engage in fraud.  However, for some reason the phone companies have allowed people to block caller ID or spoof it.  And apparently this isn't hard to do. The question is, if you spoof caller ID what number do you use?

The trend about two to six months ago was to use a random four-digit phone number preceded by your area code and exchange number.  The idea was that you would see this number and think it was somebody calling from your neighborhood and thus pick up.  However for people like me, who are still using a phone number from a different state, receiving such calls backfires.

There are very few people in Northern Virginia that I still know who would call me, and the few that do are on my contacts list and would show up with their name.  Thus, when I receive a phone call for the prefix of area code 703 and local exchange 474, I know it's a fraudulent call.

The fraudsters are hip to this, and they've adapted their strategies accordingly.  One other technique is to use a slightly different exchange, hoping that you think it's somebody if not from your neighborhood, then from your hometown.  Another strategy is to use a phone number from an adjacent area code, which have increased to accommodate the exploding number of cell phone numbers.

So lately, instead of getting calls from area code 703, I'm getting them from area code 540 - also in Northern Virginia.

Another scam is to use area code to 710 which is a special area code reserved only for government agencies - and has only one working number.  I presume this number is used by people try the old IRS scam, claiming that you are about to be arrested unless you send the money via prepaid debit cards.  They also use a similar scam claiming that you failed to show up for jury duty and are about to be arrested.

The most annoying recent call has been one where I am treated to a recording saying that I signed up for a message group relating to back or knee pain or something to that extent.  Of course I never signed up for any such group, this is just their way of trying to avoid the Do Not Call Registry - or at least a lame attempt at it.

The scam is old as the hills. They claim they can provide you with some medical device free of charge, which will be paid for by Medicare or Medicaid.  If you press 1, you are connected to an operator who then gives you the hard sell on this knee brace or whatever it is they're selling.  You are told it'll be no cost to you and they will ship you the product free of charge, other than the small shipping and handling fee.

But of course, you know how this will play out.  A week or so later they will call you, after you've received your "free" knee brace, and claim that Medicare would not pay for the knee brace.  What's more you'll find out that this particular knee brace is astoundingly expensive and that you are now liable to pay for it.  They will then pressure you to pay for the knee brace, or charge the credit card number that you already gave them in order to pay for "shipping and handling."

This is just merely an extension of the scooter scam. A few years back, they advertised heavily on TV that you can get a free electric scooter and that Medicare or Medicaid will pay for it.  You were exhorted to call a 1-800 number, and they would take your information, usually including a credit card, to pay for "shipping and handling."  They would then send you this electric scooter and then later on call you and say, oh by the way, Medicare refused to reimburse us for the cost and now you owe us $10,000 for a scooter.  Or $5,000 or whatever they feel they could get away with.

They sold a lot of overpriced scooters this way.  I know some oldsters personally who fell for the scam.  And in a way, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for them.  The people I knew really didn't need the scooters, in fact what they need to do was walk more and scooter less.  But they fell for the old something-for-nothing concept.  They felt that the government owed them something and that they were going to get a free thing from Uncle Sam, so why not just get in line for it even if you don't need it?

It's like my neighbors in Florida who would stand in line for 3 hours for a bag of free ice after the hurricane, not realizing that there was nothing in their house that needed to be refrigerated and what's more by the time they got home their bag of free ice was a bag of free water. Nevertheless, Uncle sugar was giving out bags of free ice and meals ready-to-eat so you might as well get in line and get your free swag.  It's a mindset that is destroying this country on many levels.

That's why, in a way, it's hard to feel sorry for people who fall for these scams.  When the major premise of the scam is that the mark (the sucker) is getting something-for-nothing or somehow taking advantage of others, it is really hard to feel sorry for someone when it turns out that they were the ones being taken advantage of and the something-for-nothing is being taken from them, not given to them.

We were watching an old rerun of Dragnet 1967 on YouTube the other day, and the episode was related to something called the bank examiner scam.  Apparently back in the day - and even today - con artists will contact older people and tell them there's been stealing going on at the bank.  In order to catch the teller who is stealing, they ask an elderly person to withdraw a large sum of money from their account.  The so-called Bank examiner will then "mark" the bills and put them back in the cashier's drawer and then trace them to see who's been stealing.

This scam relies on the good nature of older people who want to help law enforcement.  Of course, the phony bank examiner takes the money.  He also advises the victim not to contact the police for at least a week so that the teller is not tipped off.  So by the time the victim figures out they've been conned, it's too late to track down the perpetrators.

What struck me about the episodbe was one of the monologues given by Joe Friday or one of his cohorts.  He noted that working in bunco for so long, he found out it hard to feel sorry for the victims  - as many times the victims felt they were the ones scamming someone else or somehow taking advantage.  When someone who thinks they're going to score big by fraudulent means, and ends up being defrauded themselves, it's hard to feel sorry for them.  But it is tragic when someone is genuinely trying to help the police but ends up being hoodwinked by a con artist.  They are abusing the good nature of other human beings.

The same can be said also for other sorts of "Good Samaritan" scams.  Grandma gets a call from someone she thinks is her granddaughter or grandson, claiming they are in legal trouble and asking her to wire money.  She hopes to help her daughter or granddaughter get out of trouble yet again, and sends off the money - not realizing that her granddaughter is safely at school and not in any sort of legal trouble.  There's something particularly odious about scams like that.

Of course, the one way to avoid these sort of scams is just not to pick up the phone - which is what a lot of young people do today, anyway.  No one calls by phone anymore - they text.  In fact, I think a lot of young people today have stage fright about talking over the phone as they don't seem to be comfortable doing it.  Seeing somebody talk on the phone in public, particularly the old-fashioned cell phone holler is becoming a rarer and rarer thing.  Instead, the new generation gazes down at their laps where their hands are quite busy in their crotch - and not playing with themselves, but playing with their cell phone.

Of course, the scammers have adopted to this as well and also send scam messages by text and whatnot.

But of course, it's a lot harder to sell a 20-something a knee brace than it is to sell it to a 60-something!