Why Phone Fraud Starts With A Silent Call : All Tech Considered When you answer your phone and there's no one on the other end, it could in fact be a computer that's gathering information about you and your bank account. Here's how.

Why Phone Fraud Starts With A Silent Call

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Time now for All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: Maybe you've had this experience recently - the phone rings - hello? Hello? Hello? Nobody is there. Well, there may have actually been somebody there - or at least a computer calling your number and tens of thousands of others to build a list of people to target for theft. Today on All Tech, we're talking about the growing problem of automated phone scams. According to one firm's analysis, they are up 30 percent in the past year. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani to tell us how they work.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Maybe you gave your number to Target or another big retailer that got hacked. Maybe you entered an online raffle to win a free iPhone. In any number of ways, the criminal ring gets your 10 digits, loads them into an automated system and that initial call you get with silence on the other end...

VIJAY BALASUBRAMANIYAN: That's essentially the first of the reconnaissance calls that these fraudsters do. They're trying to see are they getting a human on the other end?

SHAHANI: Vijay Balasubramaniyan is CEO of Pindrop Security, a company in Atlanta that detects phone fraud.

BALASUBRAMANIYAN: You even cough and it knows you're there.

SHAHANI: The next step is gathering information about your bank or credit card account. You get this call.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Calling with an important message regarding your debit card. If you are a cardholder, please stay on the line and press one. Otherwise, please have the cardholder call us 1-877...

SHAHANI: If you're thinking about ignoring it, the message tries to scare you into paying attention.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: A temporary hold may have been placed on your account and will be removed upon verification of activity. Again, that number is 1-877...

SHAHANI: That number leads to another automated system that prompts you to share personal details, like your date of birth, your card number and secure pin, the expiration date, your Social Security number. It can be tricky because many real banks have a similar system, and Balasubramaniyan says fear does kick in. He recalls one big scam.

BALASUBRAMANIYAN: We last year had this IRS call where they were saying you owe back taxes.

SHAHANI: If you wanted to call back or have time to talk to your spouse before paying over the phone, the fraudster wouldn't let you go.

BALASUBRAMANIYAN: They're like OK, if you want a moment to process this, we're going to send the law enforcement in front of your doorstep.

SHAHANI: There's also a very interesting detail about this 1-877 number. If you call back from your phone, which the criminal dialed, you get the prompt. If you call back from somewhere else, you get...

BALASUBRAMANIYAN: This number has been deactivated.

SHAHANI: So a regulator or police officer that's trying to crack down will think incorrectly it's out of commission. Once the criminal ring scrapes enough information on you, they have humans call your financial institution. Banks and credit card companies hire Pindrop to help them detect fraud. Here's a real-life example provided by one call center. It starts with the operator.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I apologize. I'm having a little bit of a hard time hearing you. Are you on a, like, a...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd like you to - I'd like to know the available credit on my account.


SHAHANI: The caller, who is pretending to be the account holder, wants to know his available credit to make sure the account is worth pursuing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your available credit $34,999.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thirty-four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, $34,999.

SHAHANI: That's good money.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK, can you help me update my main address today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Update your address?

SHAHANI: The caller proceeds to take over the account. Now, there are clues that the guy calling isn't legit. Listen again to the quality of his voice.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd like you to - I'd like to know the available credit on my account.

SHAHANI: Internet-based phone services divide your voice into little packets, wrap them up and ship them across the network. If a packet gets lost, you get a break in the audio. The size of the break varies by country, by network conditions, the specific device you use - Samsung Galaxy, MacBook Air - and the voice itself. These all give additional clues. Pindrop has a tool that puts about 147 clues together and rates how trustworthy the caller is in real time, so an operator can tell...

BALASUBRAMANIYAN: This call is supposed to come from a landline in Atlanta, but the audio is telling us it's a Skype phone calling from West Africa.

SHAHANI: There's no similar tool available for the average person. Balasubramaniyan says your best bet is to make sure the number you're calling matches the number on the back of your credit card or debit card or the company's website. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

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