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The B List: These nine robocallers and phishers belong in the Scammers Hall of Shame

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2013 - I haven’t heard from "Rachel from Cardholder Services” for a few weeks, but "Bob" with a thick accent from somewhere across the globe has been calling frequently to warn me that my computer has been infected with a virus.

Sometimes, the voice claiming to be "Bob” says he’s from Microsoft. Other times, he uses a more generic approach: He’s calling from "the IT department.”

"Bob" is on the line when I pick up the phone; he doesn’t use an automated message. The numbers that pop up on Caller ID are often local, using a process known as "spoofing” to display false numbers. When successful, these scammers charge consumers for bogus security services and sometimes steal their identities and access their personal financial accounts.

I usually hang up, but when "Bob” called the other day, I sweetly thanked him for calling and then asked him how his mother is doing.

Pause.

Me: Does your mother know what you do for a living?

He: Ma’am, I am trying to help you.

Me: Does your mom know that you lie and try to cheat old people?

He: Ma'am, I am trying to help you.

Me: You need to make this right with your mother. I don’t feel sorry for you because you’ve chosen this path of evil, but your poor mother must be heartbroken.

This time HE hung up.

If "Bob” calls today, I will ask him if he believes in hell.

For now, this computer virus scam tops my list of scoundrels who belong in the Scammers Hall of Shame, but it’s a tight race. Here are the other candidates; how many do you recognize?

1. The computer/Microsoft scam is particularly dangerous because the potential damage is far-reaching. The scammers talk unsuspecting victims into letting them take over their computers to scrub them clean of viruses. In addition to the fee they charge for their bogus service, they can steal security pass codes, financial information and even plant bugs to turn computers into “zombies” they can control without your knowledge. The scam targets older or less-savvy computer users who think they’re really talking to legitimate technicians.

Microsoft has posted its own warnings about the scams. 

It’s an international scam, by the way. Here is a fascinating piece about a computer security researcher who scammed the scammers. Warning: Do not try this at home.

Reporting scams

* As always, should you receive a Rachel-esque robocall or a "phishing” email or text, it’s best to hang up or delete. Never give out personal information to anyone claiming to be from your bank or a federal agency, and don’t click on embedded links.

* Register a complaint with the FTC through its online complaint assistant or call 1-877-382-4357.

* To report an internet scam, go to the website for the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) The center is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center

2. Dropping to second place is the classic scam from "cardholder services,” or “card member services,’’ et al., informing consumers about their eligibility for lower credit card interest rates.

Best known for their recorded greetings from "Rachel,” these persistent robocalls are annoying as well as illegal. The "Rachel" scam was dealt a blow in November when the FTC cracked down on robocallers based in Arizona and Florida. But the scam lives on, now introduced by recorded messages from a host of Rachel's pals, including Ann and Heather. Lately, I get more of these on my cell phone than on my landline. 

I have written several stories about the "Rachel" scam. Hanging up is the best choice because speaking to the "customer representatives" -- even to toy with them -- seems to trigger more calls. (Don’t even waste your time pressing the number asking to be removed from the call list.) Sometimes, though, I do press 1 to be put through so I can ask the representative, "What have you done with Rachel?”

3. Incredibly, the "left penniless abroad" scams are still around. These emails have urgent pleas in the subject lines and come from email addresses of friends or family members who are supposedly traveling abroad and need cash immediately. I've received two in the past week from friends whose email addresses had been hacked. They were in St. Louis at the time.

Any time you suspect an email is a scam, don’t open it and never click on the embedded links. In particular, caution older relatives and friends who spend little time online because they might not recognize these emails as scams until it's too late. It's alarming to see frantic appeals from friends claiming to have lost their wallets in faraway places -- or that they were robbed at gunpoint and now face arrest for failure to pay their hotel bills. The AARP has published a useful alert on these scams.

4. By now, most of us are on to similar scams, often based in Nigeria, announcing that we’ve won a foreign lottery or can share in untold riches if only we'll help a member of royalty access their wealth from a bank. The catch: They need some cash to pay fees or bribe someone. These phishing schemes live on and are notable for their poor English, bad grammar and misspellings.

5. The next category of scammers gets an A for Audacity: Pretending to be the very government agencies that are trying to nail them. The fact is, FBI Director James B. Comey is not trying to ensure that you will receive a large sum of money, and the "Anti Terrorist and Monetary Crimes Division” does not exist. In a statement on Sept. 25, the FBI again warned the public that spam e-mailers continue to use the agency's name in hoax emails.

Government agencies -- and that includes the IRS -- do not send unsolicited emails asking you to input personal information. Don’t respond to these emails and never click on the embedded links because they frequently contain viruses or malicious software. Report the scams to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Included in this category: Scammers who claim to represent the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry

6. Along the same vein, PayPalFacebook, Google and Yahoo do not send unsolicited emails about security breaches that require you to "confirm" account and credit card information. Neither do banks and credit card companies 

7. At least once a month, I get an "alarming" robocall that starts out with a warning: "The FBI reports a break-in every 15 minutes …” The recording often promises a "free” security system. There are various forms of this scam. The caller might be attempting to get personal information. Other times, the scammers will actually install a basic system in your home for free, but then charge for pricey add-ons. Or, you will have to sign an expensive long-term monitoring contract. In some cases, these scammers go door-to-door. The FTC has issued an alert about security system fraud that is worth reading if you are considering installing an alarm system. (Though you'll have to wait until the government shutdown ends to read it.)

8. It was only a matter of time before scammers started texting. The ones I most frequently get are from "banks" phishing for personal account information. Text scams are particularly annoying for consumers who have budget phone plans that charge per text message.

9. Scammers have also targeted the Affordable Care Act, though I have yet to get one of these phone calls or emails. They claim to be "from the government" and are trolling for personal information, including Social Security numbers. The FTC has posted a detailed warning on its website about this scam in its various forms. (Also inaccessible during the shutdown.)

10. This list could go on and on. If you’ve gotten a new or creative robocall, email or text message from a scammer, take the time to report it. Law enforcement agencies use reports from consumers to help track the elusive cheats.

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