03 December 2015

Small Business Scam Alert! Relay Phone Operator Scam

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice... 

I will Google the scenario & maybe I won't get snookered.

Here's what happened:I received a relay call from a potential client a few weeks ago.  Yes, I have received a relay call before.  Yes, I will repeat my greeting. "Hello! This is Adriel the Organizer."

If you've never received a relay call, Wikipedia describes it as "an operator service that allows people who are deafhard of hearingdeafblind, or have a speech disorder to place calls to standard telephone users via a keyboard or assistive device." 

So, here I am, taking notes & asking questions (What made you call a professional organizer?) when suddenly the operator declares "your caller has disconnected."  Ok, my relay call etiquette must be off.  Maybe I didn't talk fast enough. 

I didn't have time to ask for her to repeat her email address. No, the operator cannot repeat the information once the caller has disconnected.  Ok.  I understand. Nora, the caller, has my contact information - phone & email. Everything is fine.

Two weeks later I receive an email.  It's Nora!  She remembered me!

Yay!  Closets are my FAVORITE thing to organize.  I have a fabulous contractor for building them. I reply & look forward to this new project.  I send her an invitation to my HOUZZ profile so we can collaborate on closet ideas together.

Shortly after the email arrives I get another relay call.  Yes, I received the email.  Yes, I am ready for the project. Yes, I look forward to the information you can send me about the project.  The operator says my caller has disconnected again.

This email arrived yesterday.  Now my spidey-senses are tingling.  Something seems off.  Do you see it?  

Let me explain - Point Harbor, where I share an office with my husband's machine shop (Underground Machine Works) - is a tiny, tiny place just before you cross the Wright Brothers Bridge on to the Outer Banks.  Wikipedia (I know, I know, but still, they are a good resource for this type of stuff) says we have "an estimated permanent population of about 100".  

This new client says she has bought a house just around the corner from our offices?  In an extremely small warehouse district? I am suspicious. 

The town name is obviously cut, pasted & in a different font. I am suspicious.  

The language is foreign sounding - not like a deaf person has written to me but more like one of those scam emails you get when you try to sell something on Craigslist. I am suspicious.  

The term "all major credit cards" is not wording I have ever heard any real person use in conversation.  I am suspicious.

I immediately receive a follow up relay phone call.  Yes, I have received a relay call before.  Yes, I received your email. Yes, I will get back to you ASAP.  Your caller has disconnected.  

Before I also hang up I ask the operator "what do I do if I believe a call is a scam?" She says it's so hard to prove anything, but I can let the operator know & the number goes on a watch list. Although they are duty bound to relay the calls, the watch list numbers are identified to the receiver as being flagged as a possible scam.  Ok.  I tuck that information away.

Now I Google "relay call scams".  It's a real thing - a great way to disguise your identity & scare people into doing what they want.  What business wants to find themselves suspicious of a person just because they have a special need?  
According to this article in Bloomberg Business Week the National Association for the Deaf  says “these scams threaten the legitimacy of our own calls and lead to businesses sometimes refusing to accept relay calls altogether.” I am suspicious.  But I also want to use good business practices to remain open to real client needs. 

I carefully crafted my reply... maybe some very specific questions will lead to very specific answers?

This morning, at 5 am, I receive this email:

My office phone starts ringing repeatedly at 8 am.  It's Nora. I don't accept any of the calls until 9:30.  I am a bit shorter this time. Yes, I have received a relay call before. Yes, I received your email. Yes, I will get back to you ASAP.  Your caller has disconnected.  

I immediately Google the specific address (not in our little town, as originally indicated, but in the next town over). The house is for sale.  I call my friend, real estate agent Dawn Butcher at Caldwell Banker Seaside Realty.  She is intrigued & is excited to help me flush out a scam-ster. 

I call the agent on the listing, John Leatherwood also at Coldwell Banker Seaside Realty.  I ask him if he can give me any information on whether that property was sold to a deaf woman.  Not only is the house not sold, it doesn't even have any offers on it.  He is also intrigued.  What could they possibly hope to gain?  I tell him they haven't asked for anything yet.  But it's coming.

Evidently Ms. Nora Jones, in whatever country she's in, knows how to Google too.  She (or he, or them?!?) Goggle-d my business, my location & even houses for sale in my service area.  I have to say, with all that closet talk, she knew how to reach an organizer's heart.  *sigh*

As soon as I was able to confirm that the specific address I was given was a lie, I returned the call to the relay number.  The operator immediately put the call through, but my party was not available.  Before the operator could disconnect I asked if I could report a fraudulent call.  He said they did not have a resource for that, stopped himself & wisely passed me on to a supervisor.  The woman was curt but professional.  She noted the phone number but the email address & name were something so easy to make up that the information I had would be of no help to them. Thank you.

What a sad thing to abuse such a wonderful resource.

I will still gladly accept relay calls.  But now I know...

You almost fooled me once.