Saturday, February 16, 2019

Still Life with Robin: The Scam Call Is Coming from INSIDE the house!

by Peggy Robin

I have written before about my pledge to stop picking up the phone unless the caller ID shows it’s from someone I know (see and I would like to let ALL such calls go straight to voicemail. But there are a couple of good reasons why I can’t consistently obey that simple rule. First, I do business with all kinds of people, and there are those who might decide to call me rather than email for a first contact. Yes, I know I could wait until they leave me a message and then call them right back. But I think that might annoy them. I know it would annoy me if I called a number to do business with someone and they never, ever picked up their phone. And second, I have an elderly mother, and it’s always possible that someone who’s taking care of her would call me from a number I don’t have in my contacts list. So if I see a number on the caller ID that shows a 202, 301, or 703 area code and a local prefix, I tend to pick up.

Nine times out of ten, I’m sorry I’ve done that. Nine times out of ten, I hear noises on the line, like the background chatter of many voices in a boiler-room – often before anyone on my line says a word. Or I’ll hear that uncanny, oddly bright and chipper but somehow artificial note in a voice that signals it’s a recording of someone acting out a sales pitch. Either way, I know I should not have answered. The instant I realize it’s not a legitimate caller, I hang up – usually without even saying, “Hello.” That’s because I’ve heard it’s dangerous to speak a word to scammers on the phone. They can record your voice – especially if you have spoken the word “yes” – to make it appear as if you have agreed to buy something they’re selling.

The first thing I do after hanging up the phone is use the tools provided by my phone system to block that caller from ever getting through to my number again. I know it’s largely a futile gesture, as most scammers hide behind stolen local numbers. By blocking a scam call coming from 202-363-XXXX, I am likely only preventing some innocent local resident, who has no idea their number’s been spoofed, from calling me about some perfectly legitimate neighborhood event.

Defenses against scammers only tend to make them seek more ingenious, more devilish ways to break through. But now I think they finally have gone too far. They have now spoofed my own landline to try to reach me. For several days running this has happened: My landline rings. I look at the caller ID and it says the call is coming from my own number! I let it ring until the voicemail picks up. Of course, no one leaves a message.

I can’t block that number, because that would mean I would never be able to call from line one to line two at home – something I occasionally need to do to test the phone system. So whoever this scammer is who has stolen my number can just keep on calling me, day after day, and I have to put up with it. Not a thing I can do about it. Well, that’s not quite true. I suppose I could change my number. But who’s to say they wouldn’t start calling me from that number, too? Or I could just give up my landline altogether. But that seems the coward’s way out. No, I’m not going to be scared into giving up a number I’ve had for decades and decades – a number that feels like a part of me.

And yet, now that it’s out there, put to use by some nefarious person to harm to others, perhaps it's time to face the truth. My poor old number will never be the same as it was, before it was corrupted. It’s lost its innocence, those ten familiar digits. And yet I’m not ready to let it go. And even if I did, that wouldn’t do anything to stop the person who’s using it with ill intent. So what is the solution, the right thing to do? I’m afraid there isn’t one. All I can do is see my own number come up on the caller ID and turn away, hoping this will be the last time. With no reason to suppose it will be. Sigh.
Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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