Chip Minemyer | Hi, my name is Alex, and you need to call me ...

January 11, 2014 

Maybe this has happened to you:

You answer the phone and a man tells you he is with the federal government and you are in trouble.

But things can be cleared up if you’ll just verify your Social Security number …

A Bellefonte-area man recently checked his phone messages, and encountered the voice of a caller identifying himself as “Alex Cooper, an officer with the Federal Trade Commission.”

The caller offered what seemed to be a legitimate phone number. “Alex” needed to talk about a problem concerning the man’s Social Security number.

The local man was instantly suspicious of a scam, and rightly so.

“Through the years, scammers have not infrequently attempted to trade on the FTC’s name in their efforts to scam consumers,” said Jay Mayfield, a senior public affairs specialist with the real Federal Trade Commission.

Mayfield would not say if the commission had other “Alex Cooper” reports or was investigating that particular scenario, but a Google search shows many people have had similar experiences with such calls.

The Bellefonte man did call “Alex,” who pressed for personal information but hung up when the man refused. “Alex” already knew a lot about the man, however.

“These impersonation scams have often related to the collection of non-existent lottery or sweepstakes winnings, though that is certainly not universal,” Mayfield said. “Another common approach by scammers is to offer ‘assistance’ retrieving refunds that were obtained through FTC lawsuits.”

Mayfield and the FTC said consumers should be wary of anyone telling them that they’ve won a lottery or prize, but saying they need to pay insurance, taxes or shipping fees before getting paid.

The FTC’s website reminds that “no legitimate government official will ask you to send money to collect a prize.” Don’t wire money or send cash with the promise of a big check being sent back to you, the FTC warns.

The state attorney general’s office says you should ask your bank about its information sharing policies, and also offers these consumer safety tips:

•  Don’t give out any personal information over the phone or Internet unless you know with whom you are dealing.

•  Contact your bank if your statement doesn’t arrive or update on schedule.

•  Keep a close eye on your credit-card statements and report anything that seems inaccurate or out of place.

•  Keep documents with personal information in a safe place. The office advises that you shred charge receipts, credit applications, old checks and other documents containing personal financial information.

•  Use passwords, but avoid terms someone could easily find — such as a birth date or family members’ names.

The state Attorney General’s Office says that to avoid becoming the victim of a “phishing” or “vishing“ scam, never put bank account information or personal identification numbers on a non-secure website, and don’t leave them on answering machines.

And don’t call “Alex Cooper” or anyone else claiming to be with a government agency and simply turn over private information.

“This particular angle of trying to convince the consumer they are somehow a target of the FTC (or other federal agencies) is also not uncommon,” Joseph Peters, senior executive deputy attorney general for communications under Attorney General Kathleen Kane, said in an email exchange.

“We have heard of these ‘government-sound-alike’ scams for several years,” Peters said. “In some, the caller identifies him/herself as from the local police department, the IRS, the attorney general’s office. Some even use names of our employees.

“In nearly all, there is a threat of some imminent arrest or other dire action (such as arresting a family member) if the consumer does not provide the information requested, wire the money, etc.”

Peters said consumers should not panic when they receive such a call, but should attempt to validate the caller’s identity with the organization he or she allegedly represents, if it actually exists.

“We remind consumers that law enforcement or other government agencies will not use threats to intimidate consumers, including threats of debtors’ prisons,” Peters said. “If a consumer owes the government money, the agency will be using the appropriate legal channels to collect.”

Peters was not surprised by the details of the Bellefonte man’s experience, but would not say if the AG’s office was investigating any such scams or “Alex Cooper” reports.

“Complaints from consumers are often a vital tool in our investigations,” Peters said, “and so, I’d just reinforce that encouragement to file complaints directly with the FTC.”

Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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