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Caller ID spoofing a 'large problem' in North Country

Union Leader Correspondent

June 18. 2014 8:02PM

JEFFERSON — Caller ID “spoofing” is affecting the North Country.

It’s an illegal practice by which scammers use a software program to make it appear that they are calling from another phone number — ostensibly and invariably in an effort to gain access to the call recipient’s personal data and, ultimately, their money.

Paul Robitaille, who is program manager of the Berlin-based ServiceLink Resource Center of Coos County, said the caller ID scam is “something we’re aware of and when we do give our lectures to seniors, this is one of the scams that we mention.”

This is just one form of electronic scamming.

“I think it’s a large problem,” said Robitaille, who is a former Gorham selectman.

He’s pleased, though, about awareness of such scams among seniors.

“At the last senior lecture that I gave, I was surprised by how aware the seniors were of these scams,” Robitaille said, “A lot of them talk to each other, so the surprise is going away.”

Some of the seniors knew about scams that I didn’t know about yet and I was very surprised, very pleased with how aware they were,” he added.

Not everyone, however, knows what is going on and recently, phone users around the state have reported getting calls from “Unknown” or “Restricted” callers, and, in the case of a Jefferson resident and others, from, seemingly, themselves.

A Jefferson resident, who asked that she not be identified out of fear of more unwanted calls, said ID spoofing has affected several friends and relatives.

“It’s happened twice,” the resident said. “The first time you think it’s a mistake and when it happens again, you just begin to wonder.”

Lincoln Police Chief Theodore P. Smith said he hadn’t heard of caller ID “spoofing” but noted that electronic scams are common.

His department’s website warns the public about the “power company” scam in which someone pretending to be from a utility, calls a homeowner or business and warns that electricity will be cut off unless they immediately resolve a “problem” with a recent bill.

“As soon as we hear of one (a scam), we let everybody know,” said Smith.

Jeff Nevins, who is FairPoint Communications’ public relations manager for Maine and New Hampshire, said readily-available software lets scammers put whatever numbers they want into a caller ID display.

A call from yourself is not unusual, he said, and “We even saw recently where the spoofer had changed it and it wasn’t a number, it was the word urgent that showed up on the caller ID.” In another instance, scammers made calls that showed recipients that the call was coming from a Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in Bangor, supposedly to check on a vehicle registration but also asking for personal information.

Nevins said scammers “prey on elderly people and we believe that northern New England is a target for that because we have an aging population. They know that if they make a certain number of calls they’re going to get an elderly person.”

Having grown up in a more innocent time, many senior citizens won’t initially think they’re being scammed, said Nevins, but will instead cooperate with the callers, especially if the call appears to have come from a government agency or someone they know, or think they know.

Whatever you do, Nevins added, don’t answer an incoming call where you’re not certain of the caller’s identity. Scammers are very savvy, he added, and even after one FairPoint customer changed her phone number, the scammers tracked her down through a plumber in her community whom they called and directed to go to the victim’s house to do work.

The plumber was also told to bring a disposable, non-traceable cell phone with him, said Nevins, and when he got to the victim’s residence, he gave it to her and the scammers on the other end immediately began berating the woman for changing her phone number.

“They work it from all different angles and they prey upon people. They intimidate people and a lot of times elderly people get scared and afraid of what might happen to them,” said Nevins, if they don’t comply with the scammer’s demands, which on their face, are purportedly coming from a legitimate source.

“It’s disgusting and very frustrating,” Nevins said, adding that one FairPoint customer lost nearly $750,000, when she got duped by a phone scam where the caller told her she had won a lottery, but had to first pay a variety of excise taxes to collect it.

James Boffetti, a senior assistant attorney general and the chief of the New Hampshire Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau, said he himself has received several fake calls, underscoring the fact that in a free, open society, there are some people who will use technology with bad intentions.

“This recent phenomenon of the person’s phone number showing up in the caller ID, I noticed it actually in my own home,” said Boffetti, adding that “the fact that that happens should be the first warning sign that this isn’t legitimate.”

He cautions people about giving personal information over the phone.

“People need to be extraordinarily suspicious about unsolicited calls and requests for personal information,” Boffetti said.

Kati Daffan, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection in Washington, said her agency has been dealing with a variety of scams, including caller ID spoofing.

“We’ve been trying very hard to get the word out to consumers that, unfortunately, you cannot trust the information you see on your caller ID,” she said.

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