Identity theft with a twist

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted Sept. 04, 2011, at 11:46 a.m.

Here’s a quick quiz to check your level of knowledge on identity theft. You receive a telephone call from someone pretending to be a fraud investigator from Visa or Mastercard. Actually, the caller is after a single piece of information which, if obtained, can allow unauthorized charges to your card.

No, you say, I won’t be fooled; I’ve heard of these schemes before, where the crooks claim my account is compromised and asks for my personal information … they say it’s to “verify my other data” or some such nonsense, but they’re trying to rip me off.

You’re right, of course. But listen to this well-scripted version that has been around for several years and apparently has been rather successful. The “official” from the card’s “security and anti-fraud department” calls to see if you’ve made a purchase for, say $497; he says that’s just under the $500 threshold that raises red flags at his company.

He tells you the name of your bank which issued the card and you verify that. He’s probably called you by name and obviously has your phone number.

When you say you didn’t make the purchase, the “helpful official” says you’ll be credited for the amount on your next statement. He verifies the mailing address, and when prompted you agree everything is correct. He says he’s starting an investigation and urges you to call your card’s security division (he even gives you a code number to refer to when you call).

He says all you need to do now — wait for it — is “verify you are in possession of your card.” You do this by turning it over and reciting the three-digit security code. He says, “Yes, that’s right; I just needed to verify that you still have the card.”

In reality, that’s the last piece of information the thief you are talking to needs to rip you off.

The caller may keep the ruse going, asking if you have any other questions or concerns. You likely say no, and he probably says if you do, call VISA or Mastercard security at the toll-free numbers on your card. He will then hang up and put his few minutes’ work to good use … at your expense. If you call the real card security people right away, you may find the thief has made unauthorized charges in the moments since you hung up.

As with all scams that have been around a while, it’s hard to determine which ones are still ripping people off and which are urban legends. There are some websites that track such things:, probably the most often searched site, whose creators say they’re not infallible, just trying to help others in their search for the truth., which won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years back. It uses a “truth-o-meter” on widely quoted statements, rating them on a scale from “true” to “pants on fire.”

• Columbia Journalism Review (, looks at both real events and rumors.

• MediaMatters ( covers media, personalities and programs “documenting conservative misinformation throughout the media.”

The above scenario is likely to succeed; it’s possible, plausible and has the potential to cost a victim plenty. The hard truth is, if a caller already knows your name, address, phone number and bank, your financial information has already been compromised. Such a call should prompt you to protect your identity from other thieves. Visit, the Federal Trade Commission’s website, and search for “identity theft.”


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