by Barrett Seaman
The phone rings and you answer, “Hello.” There’s no response, just silence; so you repeat “Hello.”
You’re about to hang up when a friendly voice finally asks, “Can you hear me now?” Naturally, you say: “Yes”—and that’s all they need to get what they want.
The caller may go on with a sales pitch for a cell phone company, or tell you that you are on a list of people with possible hearing issues, but it doesn’t matter: they had you at “Yes,” which they’ve recorded. With the sound of your voice and a credit card number they got through some legitimate purchase you made elsewhere, they can win approval for new charges to your card that will begin reaping them a steady flow of cash — yours.
“’The Can You Hear Me Scam’ is new,” said Irvington resident Liz Loewy, General Counsel for the fraud protection service firm EverSafe and former prosecutor and chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. “There is a lot of buzz about it.”
So much so that area police issued an alert in late January, warning residents to avoid falling for the scheme. “This alert was prompted by a series of cases in New Rochelle,” said Irvington Police Chief Michael Cerone, “but it’s all over the area. They usually move into an area like this, make a bunch of robo-calls and move on.”
Before they go, however, they are likely to have scored enough to make it worth their while. “We’ve had several heart-wrenching cases,” said Cerone. “Some lost thousands of dollars.”
There are other phone scams making the rounds. Tarrytown Police Lieutenant John Barbelet said his jurisdiction hasn’t heard much about the “Can you hear me now?” scheme but has had lots of reports of alleged sweepstake winners who are told they’ve won anywhere between $3 and $5 million but have to pay federal taxes on it first.
“We’ve had one very significant loss,” said Barbelet, “in the range of $200,000.”
Other scammers want you to sign up for an “Obamacare” policy, which should provide you with immediate evidence of fraud, since no real solicitation would refer to the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare.
Area residents have also been plagued recently by a rash of calls purporting to be from the “U.S. Government Grants Department.” Beyond the fact that there is no such entity, recipients of these calls should be tipped off by the caller’s thick south Asian accent. The message they bring is that, for vague reasons related to your clean tax record or credit rating, you have been selected to receive $9,200 (it always seems to be $9,200), BUT you must first provide them with a credit card number so that they can deduct a fee—or give them your bank account number so that they can deposit your “grant,” when in fact they plan to take money out.
According to EverSafe’s Loewy, one in five Americans over the age of 65 has been a victim of one kind or another of what she calls “Elderfraud.” Dementia patients are particularly vulnerable. Beyond these “phishing” expeditions designed to extract account IDs, seniors are subject to more direct attempts to pick their pockets. One such scenario involves a call saying that a grandchild is in some sort of trouble and needs money to get bailed out. Then there are home repair offers that require an advance deposit.
However creative the pitch, the tip-off that it’s fraud is the demand for money up front. The best protection is simple: don’t do it. As Barbelet advised, “If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably not (true).”
If you have cooperated with what in retrospect appears to have been a shady transaction, monitor your bank and credit card accounts to look for any unwarranted transactions.
Eversafe provides its own proprietary software to help the families of elderly citizens protect them from fraud. The company’s founder, Howard Tischler, also recommends several other protective apps and services. Anyone using a mainstream phone service can link into NoMoRoBo, a screening mechanism that blocks automated “robo-calls.” Truelink, an investment firm catering to the elderly, offers a debit card that can “block, limit, or allow merchants or categories of spending,” thus screening out predatory scammers.