This is not a scam - but it may as well be

It’s not just charlatans we have to watch out for. Genuine calls can be trouble, too.

In the past few weeks, a couple of reputable companies have telephoned me, posing as scammers. Yes, you read that correctly. Both calls were from reputable companies and yet the callers behaved in a manner that seemed designed to give me the impression that they were out to scam me.

I have been receiving uninvited calls like this for several years. The pattern is always the same. The caller starts by checking that he has my name. Then they identify their (alleged) company and ask me to “go through security” so that they can talk to me.

This is exactly what a scammer would do. A scammer wants to extract security information which they can use later to call someone pretending to be me. So why on earth do genuine companies encourage customers to give out security details to unsolicited callers?

Sometimes I simply refuse to take the call any further. These two callers were slightly different. In both cases, the calls came very shortly after I had contacted each company online. It could have been a coincidence. Or perhaps the callers were hackers who had broken into the companies’ sites and were downloading information about customers who had contacted them.

Both of those were possible. But the chances were that the calls were genuine. So I played along for a while. The first caller claimed to be from an insurance company I had just contacted (online) to cancel my policy. The “security” information he wanted was so harmless that I didn’t worry about giving it out, even if this was a hoax caller. If the call was genuine and the insurer wanted to be sure they were speaking to me, they were going the wrong way about it. We completed our conversation and, sure enough, the insurance company has stopped collecting premiums. But I’m not sure I want to purchase any policies from them in future if their checks are so useless.

The other caller was from an online retailer I had used several times in the past with great satisfaction. That morning I had placed an order with them for a fairly substantial item that I needed urgently. And now I was faced with a caller I needed to assess for their legitimacy. The caller’s first request for a security check demanded information that I wasn’t prepared to give out. I asked if there was anything else he could use. “Yes”, he said, “your phone number.”

That was an interesting one. We were, after all, speaking on the phone! So I gave him the number he was calling me on and he thanked me for completing the security check.

Then he told me that the credit card payment I had made a few minutes earlier had not gone through and he needed me to pay again if the item was to be delivered. Alarm bells started to go off. Someone was calling me and asking for money. A blatant scam. And yet, he knew exactly what item I had ordered and the delivery date I had been given. Nevertheless, it was too risky. I told him I wasn’t paying. He requested that I contact the company by any means that suited me and we parted company.

I checked my credit card account. The payment did not appear to have been registered. Maybe the call was genuine after all. I went online to the company and my order was marked as incomplete. So I phoned customer service and was put on hold. Whilst listening to the ghastly music, I looked up my item on Amazon. They had it for sale at almost £100 cheaper … and with an earlier delivery date.  All the while, my first choice retailer was still playing its “on hold” music.

So I placed an order with Amazon and then went back to the first retailer’s website where I cancelled the order. The call hadn’t been a scam after all. But making it look like one had cost them my business.

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