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Consumer Alert

Surge in scam calls mean consumers need to be vigilant

There’s a big difference between annoying calls and outright scams. Telemarketing rules limit the kind of phone calls consumers can receive, but scam calls ignore those restrictions.

Calls with prerecorded messages made by computerized dialing devices, commonly known as robocalls, are forbidden with just a few exceptions. (Unfortunately, calls from politicians are one of those exceptions.)

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So when you get a robocall, often from a generic-sounding company such as “Cardholder Services,” it’s probably a scam. Typically, the recording tries to convince you that you can lower the interest rate on your credit card or extend your auto warranty, enticing you to get on the line with a real person. Ultimately, they want you to pay them money for a worthless offer.

Lately, though, more people are complaining about an increase of these calls, which pretend to be from government agencies and utilities.

A reader recently wrote in about calls from the Internal Revenue Service threatening arrest if he didn’t pay money he supposedly owed. The IRS might not be a beloved agency, but that sort of call is not part of its repertoire. The scam tries to coax a frightened recipient of the call to send money to avoid arrest.

Similarly, National Grid and other utilities are warning about calls instructing consumers to provide bank account information over the phone immediately or have their electricity or gas shut off. While utilities make reminder calls (sometimes using prerecorded messages) noting that failure to pay a bill could result in utilities getting turned off, the legitimate calls won’t demand financial information.

The easiest way to verify the legitimacy of such a call is to contact the utility directly at the phone number on the bill, not the one the caller gives.

The Do Not Call list can help with legitimate telemarketers, but it doesn’t help with scams. Consumers can report the calls to the Federal Trade Commission using the agency’s online form, but that doesn’t mean the calls will stop. So be on guard for this latest round of scam calls, and do not give out personal or financial information on any call you don’t initiate.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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