A telemarketer points out immigrant-owned businesses that have supported police groups out of fear or a misguided belief they would receive protection. “Telemarketers”/HBO

Your scam stories

Ellen Rolfes Oct 30, 2023
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A telemarketer points out immigrant-owned businesses that have supported police groups out of fear or a misguided belief they would receive protection. “Telemarketers”/HBO

We’re watching “Telemarketers” this month. The documentary series follows two former call center workers who discovered their employer was even scammier than they thought. All three parts are available to stream on Max, with a subscription.

In the second episode of the “Telemarketers” series, filmmaker Sam-Lipman Stern spends an afternoon with William Cooper, a shady telemarketer and hustler in New Jersey. Cooper makes dozens of calls, changing his name as he solicits donations for a police officer relief fund. At one point, Cooper even turns a police scanner on in the background. 

“I might be here pitching somebody, he hears the [police scanner], he becomes intimidated,” said Cooper. “Why? Because now he thinks he’s on the phone with an actual cop.”  

Lipman-Stern’s former employer, Civic Development Group, was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading donors. But as soon as CDG shuttered its call center, new companies with fewer scruples filled the gap. These new telemarketers would take money from virtually anyone, including businesses owned by immigrants who were afraid of the police.  

“Certain people just can’t say no,” Cooper’s boss tells the film crew, his face blurred and voice altered to mask his identity. “I’ll have a bodega go in their safe and get me $500 once a f—— week, cash. They’re scared, ‘cause you’re extorting them.” 

Telemarketing schemes are just the tip of the iceberg; scams targeting immigrants are rampant, well beyond the kinds shown in “Telemarketers.” Criminals use their victims’ immigration status and complex legal threats against them, said Juan Manuel Pedroza, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.   

Many immigrants won’t speak up even when they are being ripped off, Pedroza said, because they don’t know their rights in the U.S. or how to report consumer crimes. They also may not trust the authorities to take them seriously if they reported a crime.  

“If you come from a country where that’s not the kind of thing that you’re used to doing or it’s not safe to report these kinds of crimes, maybe you keep it to yourself,” Pedroza told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.  

Many scams target immigrants who seek to become citizens or gain permanent residency.  

“This could be someone who doesn’t have authorization to live and work in the country. It could be someone who has temporary protected status. It could be someone who’s looking at a green card that might be expiring,” Pedroza said. “If you’re looking for answers and help for those kinds of cases and someone scams you, it’s immediately clear to the person you’re reporting to that you might be in a vulnerable, temporary or irregular legal status living in this country.” 

Listen to the full interview with Pedroza about how scammers target immigrants and how immigrant communities are fighting back.  

Your scam stories 

We’ve been asking for your scam stories this month. Here are some of the cautionary tales we received from “Econ Extra Credit” readers and tips for protecting yourself. 

Postal Service scams  

Jim K.: [My wife and I] are retired, college educated and engaged seniors and we have been texted more than a few times with requests from someone claiming to be the U.S. Postal Service with a note explaining that our mail or some parcel is held up and I need to confirm our address or order-number. We never responded. I asked the post office about it and was told that the service never sends out emails. It uses the mail! Anything else is a scam or a phishing operation looking to connect your email with an address or some shred of confirming identity. Pass this along please.  

Read the USPS’ guide to scams and schemes that are common with mail and packages.  

When the “FBI” calls 

Frances M.: Two years ago, I received a call from the “FBI.” The person gave their name and badge number. They told me my identity was stolen and I was going to face repercussions. When I asked why the FBI hadn’t sent me a letter, they said it was an urgent matter and it couldn’t wait. Then they told me I needed to go to Best Buy or Walmart to purchase a debit card and that they would stay on the phone with me while I’m doing it. I hung up, but they blew up my phone all day. I had to change my phone number.  

Unfortunately, these scams are not rare. Knowing what the FBI will never do or ask for will help you avoid scams. The FBI also issued new warnings about a “Phantom Hacker” scam.  

Making scammers’ job harder 

Paul S.: I haven’t received one in a while, but for a stretch, I was receiving almost weekly calls from “Microsoft” informing me of something terrible with my Windows system. This was strange as I run Linux on my PC.  

Sometimes I would sound panicked and tell them my laptop was upstairs and I had to go get it; they would say they would wait, then I would just lay the phone down, and go about my business. Usually after about 15 to 20 minutes, they would hang up. If I really had time, I would, again in a panicked voice, go through all the instructions they had and then just confuse the heck out of them. I figured the longer they were on the phone with me, the fewer vulnerable people they could bother! 

Paul isn’t the only one who likes to troll scammers. Many people are using humor to fight back.  

Gift card scams 

Linda J.: I was fairly new at my job and eager to perform well. I received an email, which I thought was from my boss, [asking] me to purchase some Apple gift cards “for a client.” I rushed out and spent $800 on them thinking I’d be reimbursed. When I realized it was a scam, I was so angry. I tried to return the gift cards to the store but was informed of their no-return policy. I was stuck with the bill. You can bet I scrutinize every email much more carefully now. Lesson learned!  

It’s better to avoid gift card scams in the first place, but if you do get tricked, some companies can “freeze” stolen gift card money so scammers can’t get it.  

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