An “agent” from the Washington D. C. Fraud Detection Office recently called me. He left a message saying he was conducting an investigation and it was urgent he talk to me. He left his name and phone number.
Part of me was deeply suspicious of this call but I wasn’t sure it was a scam. For example, if he worked in an office, wouldn’t that be part of a department or agency such as the FBI? And if so, wouldn’t the agent say he was working in the FBI’s Fraud Detection Office?
As with most scams, this included some basic psychology-based principles that social engineers use to increase the effectiveness of their attacks. He claimed to be working in an official office in D.C. attempting to show authority, and gain trust. He also used the classic urgency ploy.
During the past week, I had filed several copyright infringement notices. These are typically routine, but after filing more than 100 of these before, I wondered if the call was related to these notices.
Caller ID showed it came from a 703 number and the caller encouraged me to call back to the same number. A Google search shows this is a northern Virginia area code, so it could be from D.C.
I called back. Twice.
The answering machines sounded official saying things like: “This call will be recorded. Please hang up if you don’t want to be recorded.” It also indicated I was connected to the Washington D. C. Fraud Detection Office. But it had suspicious clicks indicating some type of transfer. Then I was connected to the “agent’s” machine. It was the same voice, but the answering machine indicated he was an investigator instead of an agent.
One-Ring Call Variant
I left messages both times, but the “agent” never called back. Alarm bells started to go off in my head. Was this a twist on the one-ring call? If you call back, you’re charged outrageous international toll number charges.
About a week after the call, I called Verizon (my phone company) and asked if there were any suspicious charges on my account related to my two phone calls. It took about 45 minutes on chat, but eventually I was transferred to someone that indicated there are no suspicious charges for the phone number. She also said I should call a 1-800 Verizon number. After another 30 minutes a rep verified that there aren’t any suspicious charges on my account.
I will be checking my bill carefully though.
What is the Fraud Detection Office?
Searching Google, I received conflicting results. First, the caller didn’t identify the agency where he worked. The following U.S. organizations all have personnel dedicated to investigating fraud:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Department of Justice (DoJ)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
If an agent was working in office of the FTC, why didn’t he say he was with the FTC? Because he didn’t mention any organization, I remain suspicious.
I ultimately submitted a report to the FTC. If they respond I’ll write more here.
How to Recognize a Scam
The FTC gives four signs of scammers.
1. Scammers PRETEND to be from an organization you know.
Scammers often pretend to be contacting you on behalf of the government. They might use a real name, like the Social Security Administration, the IRS, or Medicare, or make up a name that sounds official. Some pretend to be from a business you know, like a utility company, a tech company, or even a charity asking for donations.
They use technology to change the phone number that appears on your caller ID. So the name and number you see might not be real.
2. Scammers say there’s a PROBLEM or a PRIZE.
Some scammers say there’s a problem with one of your accounts and that you need to verify some information.
3. Scammers PRESSURE you to act immediately.
Scammers want you to act before you have time to think. If you’re on the phone, they might tell you not to hang up so you can’t check out their story.
They might threaten to arrest you, sue you, take away your driver’s or business license, or deport you. They might say your computer is about to be corrupted.
4. Scammers tell you to PAY in a specific way.
Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), tell you to deposit it, and then send them money.
This call was suspicious to me because the Fraud Detection Office (without an agency) sounded like a made up name. He also gave a sense of urgency which is a classic ploy used by social engineers. I relayed my suspicions when I called back, which is why they may have decided not to waste any more time with me. However, if the scam went further, I imagine they would be asking for money. I hope the scammers don’t bother you, but if they do, remember the four signs of scammers listed by the FTC.