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A sophisticated scam uses technology to impersonate real law enforcement agents

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Phone scams are surging because they're getting more sophisticated. The most pervasive kind involves con artists impersonating law enforcement in some pretty innovative new ways. NPR's tech correspondent Dara Kerr reports.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: It was around one in the afternoon on a Monday when Valeria Haedo's phone rang. It was from a number she didn't recognize.

VALERIA HAEDO: His name is Officer Robert Daniels from the Department of CBP - something like this.

KERR: CBP as in U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Haedo Googled Officer Daniels, and it checked out, and the number and her caller ID was from his office listed online. He said he'd intercepted a package from Mexico. It was addressed to Haedo.

HAEDO: In that package, they found narcotics. They found cash, driver's license and fake Social Security numbers all under my name.

KERR: He said he had a warrant for his arrest. She was panic-stricken.

HAEDO: I always get a little bit nervous or paralyzed if there's something legal that I have to deal with. I got very nervous, and I cried.

KERR: Then it got more complicated. Supposedly, she had two illegal properties in Texas, along with illegal bank accounts. Haedo's from Argentina but lives in Queens, N.Y., and has no connection to Texas or Mexico.

HAEDO: I was like, this is not happening. Like (laughter), this is just not real because it just sounded so much like a movie.

KERR: And this wasn't just one phone call. She was routed to multiple law enforcement agencies. She spoke to a U.S. marshal in Texas who had a Texan accent and a police officer in Queens who sounded like he grew up in the neighborhood. And the only way to fix the problem was to move her money from her bank account to a safe place.

HAEDO: They really took me on a trip of darkness where I was imagining the police coming here, arresting me for all this illegal stuff.

KERR: This scam is known as an imposter scam. It's the top fraud in the country right now. UCLA psychologist Alan Castel says this is why it works.

ALAN CASTEL: They prey on our insecurities. So unfortunately, scammers are like psychologists in the wild.

KERR: This particular imposter scam involving several law enforcement agencies is especially pervasive. The U.S. Marshals even warn about it on their answering machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please know the U.S. Marshals Service, nor any other law enforcement agency, will ever ask you for money over the phone.

KERR: Brady McCarron is a real U.S. Marshal. He gets calls from scam victims, as many as six or seven per day. Nearly all get the same script Haedo heard. McCarron says the scammers do use names of actual U.S. Marshals. They've even used his boss' name.

BRADY MCCARRON: And they tell them, look on the website. That's me right there. That's - so you know I'm not lying to you. I'm real.

KERR: Phone scams have been around forever, but now con artists get information from the internet to impersonate real people. There's technology that can clone accents, and there's caller ID spoofing. McCarron says that's why the incoming calls look like they're from actual agencies. He hears from people who've fallen for this scam. They've lost 10,000, $30,000.

MCCARRON: Those are the phone calls I hate to get. And it tears my heart apart to hear these stories.

KERR: The U.S. Marshals Service refers these scams to the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. Lois Greisman from that agency says many of these calls are coming from overseas, and people lost a total of $2.6 billion to imposter scams just last year.

LOIS GREISMAN: What is particularly pernicious about the imposter scams is that there's a relatively high rate of people who are duped by them.

KERR: Valeria Haedo stayed on the phone with the scammers for more than three hours. They stopped accusing her of crimes and said she was clearly a victim of identity theft. If she wanted to secure her bank account, the only way to do that was to withdraw money and deposit it into a cryptocurrency ATM machine. That's when she finally drew the line, even though they threatened to freeze her bank account.

HAEDO: I am not going to put any money in any digital currency. I don't understand those things. Forget about it. That's not for me.

KERR: She hung up without giving them money, although part of her still believed their story. When she woke up the next morning, her bank account wasn't frozen. All her money was there. That's when she finally realized she narrowly escaped a scam. Dara Kerr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
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