Purpose-focused Storytelling

It’s Time to Hang Up on Phone Scammers


The experience of witnessing a loved one become victimized by a phone scam has been painful. This happened to my daughter, Maia, at the end of February.

And I want to use our story, our experience, to help prevent as many people as possible from falling prey.

Brief Background

Without getting into all the details, Maia was terrorized so badly by a phone scammer that she followed their directions to “avoid arrest related to a cocaine drug bust that her ID connected to it,” and subsequently lost all her savings. It was a substantial amount of money ($13k).

This was savings she started building up in high school, but worked particularly hard to build up in the past 6 months, to pay college loans while in Zambia with the Peace Corps.

Support from the Community

Fortunately, our family as a whole, and Maia in particular, has a healthy network of friends, family and colleagues who, in the weeks following the event, rallied in support.

There was a GoFundMe campaign, as well as a going away dinner and fundraising event at the Inn at Langley sponsored by Matt Costello, co-owner and executive chef. Maia has worked for Matt since an internship there in 8th grade.

And much to our gratitude and astonishment, much of what was lost was rebuilt from this generosity. Maia’s savings was rebuilt back up to about $11k.

How to Honor this Support?

This show of support initially had a numbing effect on me, personally. We weren’t dealing with massive health care bills due to catastrophic illness. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. These are the typical events for which people do fundraising.

But a young gal victimized by a scammer? While devastating, in the long run, we’d be OK.

However, as I witnessed the support start to come in, I was impressed by how much more import it was than purely the financial value. This show of support significantly contributed to the mental and emotional healing, not just for Maia, but the friends and family closest to her.

The best way to honor the support is to deprive phone scammers of what they need most, i.e. a large pool of people susceptible to being scammed.

And I realized something needs to be done to honor this support, because “thanks” and similar expressions of gratitude are inadequate.

I came upon the thought that the best way to honor this support is to work to deprive the phone scammers of what they need most, i.e. a large pool of people susceptible to these scams.

Here is a recent article from Channel 9 News in Denver written by a reported who got one of these calls.

According to the article, these scams are growing, because they work. Since 2013 more than 10,000 victims have last $54 million (source: Treasury Secretary General for Tax Administration).

What You Can (and Should) Do

Based on conversations I’ve had during the past three weeks about these phone scams I’ve distilled a simple plan of action: Talk to three different groups of people in your social network.

Here are the 3 key groups to inform:

Talk to Your Children (especially young adults)
I never talked to my kids about the existence of these phone scams. I assumed they would just be aware by being natives of the online world, by hearing from their peers, etc. That by being “digitally native” they would just know. Obviously, this was a very bad assumption on my part, given what my daughter experienced.

Talk to your Coworkers, Friends and Peers
Throughout this experience, I’ve been surprised by who does and does not know about these phone scams. It ranges from “yep, I know about this” to “never heard of this before,” with a large group of people in the middle who kinda sorta know how these scams work.

Below, I have a summary of the key factors to look for, that are consistent with these scams.

Talk to your Elders
It is statistically true that the victims of these scams tend to be elderly. Be sure the elders in your family know about these scams.

What to Tell Your Network

There are different “flavors”of these scams. There is the “you owe money to the IRS” version, the “you’re associated with a drug bust” version, the “we can help you clean a virus off your Windows machine” version and the “you have a sick or injured relative who needs money from you now” version (particularly effective with senior citizens).

  • Often, they they start by calling and saying they represent the government;
  • They accuse you of owing money to the IRS; or they say your ID is connected to a drug bust; or, they say a loved one is in trouble and needs money; or, they’re saying your Windows computer has a problem;
  • In the IRS and Drug Bust scam, you’re threatened with immediate arrest, you’re told that your mobile phone is giving them your location and police are on their way;
  • One of the first actions the scammers take is to separate you from coworkers and family; they convince their victims that by going to family, to friends, to coworkers or the police, it will invalidate the scammer’s work on your behalf to help avoid arrest, to help avoid losing assets such as savings;
  • In Maia’s case they patched in another caller with the Caller ID indicating Seattle Police Department; this served the purpose of instilling validation that this was real;
  • The scam includes instilling fear. One colleague has described it as “mental rape,” another as “a virtual gun to the head;”
  • The scam includes telling the victim that they have access to the victim’s phone’s texts, so texting for help will result in immediate arrest;
  • The scam leverages the fear to motivate the victim to “protect” their money and assets by moving money to the scammers for “safe keeping”
  • The mechanism of transfer is the purchase of gift cards and providing the card’s reference number to the scammer, at which point the monetary value is almost immediately wiped off the card and into the scammer’s hands. There’s no way of recovering the money since the victim has withdrawn money his or herself;
  • When the victim is in the bank or at the market buying gift cards, the scammer insists the phone be on speaker phone but hidden in a pocket from tellers, cashiers, etc. The threat is that if you hang up you will be arrested


Essential Facts You Should Know

  • The IRS, the Dept of Social Security, etc., will NEVER call you and threaten arrest. Period.
  • There is no situation where any entity can call you to say that the police are on their way to arrest you, but the caller is somehow uniquely authorized to intercede an impending arrest on your behalf, as long as you do what they say (which involves giving them money)
  • At present, many of these scams involve Indian Call Centers (Google it), so a mild to thick Indian accent is a tip off (I’ve heard this is being emulate in other countries now, so this isn’t 100% across the board, but enough of it is originating out of India for this to be a valid observation)

What To Do if You Get One of These Calls

  • Hang up
  • If they persist (they often do), block their number
  • Call IRS, Social Security, etc – they have Hotlines for reporting these scams
  • Report the Call to your local police
  • If they claim to be from a reputable company or government agency, simply hang up and call that company or agency, if you feel you might have a legitimate issue, problem or concern to address.

A Role for Banks, Supermarkets, Convenience Stores


In our daughter’s experience, she was threatened to not hang up and to keep the phone in her pocket and an speaker phone while at the bank, while in line and while paying for gift cards at the supermarket cashier. These were two critical moments of human interaction that, if alert to the signs, could possibly help someone dealing with a scammer.

  • While this may be considered a privacy issue, bank tellers should be alert when youth or elderly in particular are withdrawing huge amounts of money or clearing accounts. Asking “is everything alright?” might be all it takes to snap someone out of the mind control they’re under by these scams.
  • Supermarket managers and cashiers should know that buying large numbers of gift cards with high dollar values is a sure sign that someone is likely in danger of being scammed, in trouble and in need of help. Again, a simple “Is everything OK?” may be all it takes to prevent someone from experiencing a devastating loss