March 10, 2004

Detecting scams

Yesterday when I got home there was a message on my answering machine from AT&T Wireless. They told me that if I called an 800 number I could get a $30 credit for my cell phone service. For $30 I figured it was worth a few minutes of my time to call the number so I did. I was mildly suspicious that this was a scam, however. When I dialed the number, I got to talk to a computer, which asked me to enter my cell phone number, which I did. Then it asked me to enter the last four digits of my social security number for security purposes. Still concerned that this might be a scam, I hit the pound sign instead, and was transferred to a customer service representative. The customer rep asked me for my cell phone number again, and I gave it to her. She entered it into the computer and then reported it wasn't coming up. She asked me if I had any other numbers on this account. I did, so I gave her another number. Still, she reported, nothing came up. Next she said she would need my name and address. At this point I told her I was not going to give her any more information until she told me what this whole promotion was about. What exactly did I have to do to get this $30 credit. She said she didn't know for sure until she pulled my account up, but usually they would give this credit in exchange for a one-year contract renewal. I asked her why she couldn't pull up my information from the wireless phone number, and she told me the computer was down and she was going to write down my name and address information so they could get back to me. At that point I told her I would call back later and try again when the computer was up. If this really was AT&T Wireless I was talking to, my cell phone number, alone, should be sufficient to identify me when the computer came back up.

Was this a scam or was I really talking to AT&T Wireless? I am still not sure. I suspect this really was AT&T Wireless, in which case I think this is a really bad practice. There have been so many scams of late that involve similar tactics, that it seems to me to be bad form for any company to run an offer that requires its customers to divulge personal information without any way of verifying who they are talking to. I am somewhat of an expert and I cannot tell whether I was dealing with a scammer or a legitimate company. How can we train the average person not to fall for scams if legitimate companies engage in these sorts of practices?

Posted by Lorrie Cranor at March 10, 2004 02:48 PM