Friday, May 19, 2006

Who Are They Trying to Fool?

Both kids are asleep (even the dog), so I have a moment to take a breath and catch up on some things, one of which is this (and yes, I’ve got two days to do a week’s worth of work, so I do have plenty to do…remember the theme here?) Interesting event took place that reconfirms my "don't trust anyone" mantra I've stuck to all these years, so I'll pass it along as a public safety warning to everyone who stumbles along.

I haven’t been the victim of a blatant scam in quite a while, and my wife and I are veterans of the time share circuit, if that tells you at what level I play the game. As with most anything in this world, you have to learn to deal with telemarketers and most all unsolicited emails (and those annoying food people in the super market… if I wanted to try some, I’d buy it. Do you know how many germs there are on that tray? Hundreds of people have touched it and when is the last time you washed it?)... Anyway, as with most anything, knowing full well that you should always pay attention to the man behind the curtain because the wizard isn’t always what he seems to be is half the battle. Over the years, I have developed a thick layer of snide sarcasm and leery skepticism, and rarely am I played for a fool. Nothing is for free, nobody is your friend just because they can dial your number and compliments get nowhere with me; the phone call I got today just seemed just too good to be true (and I discovered later that it sure was). What gave it away? My spidy senses were tingling, for one, and a series of clues during the phone call led me to believe, had I continued talking, I would have some serious financial problems in the near future.

Today, I ventured out for the first time with both kids at the same time; we were on a mission (more on that later). From our bedroom window, Natalie spied in the neighbor’s backyard a big purple ball, and I figured going out to find one would make for a good outing to Target, the mother ship of household jetsam. Lucky for us, we found the exact ball, picked it up and toured each aisle in the toy section and then made our way over to the book aisle. Like her parents, Natalie enjoys a good read.

Then the phone rang, my cell phone, a number I never use for important purposes (especially now that the government’s listening), such as bank transactions, etc. The number displayed on my cell phone was the same number that has been repeatedly calling me the last few days, five such “missed calls” and not a single message. I answered the phone to the jovial telemarketer on the other end, congratulating me as a valued customer (of what? Clue Number One) that has kept an outstanding record of payments (I don’t have any revolving debt…Clue Number Two). Her script continued.

She (I’ll call her Scammer) said, “Congratulations, since you have been such a valued customer, you have won four hundred dollars in a free voucher to fly on United Airlines anywhere in the continental United States.”

Me: “Great, what’s the catch?”

Scammer: “No, there’s no catch… in fact, even if you wanted to buy something today, I couldn’t let you.”

Me (ever the realist): “Nothing’s for free.”

Scammer: “In addition…” You could tell she was ignoring me and she was well taught to keep to the script. The sign of a good salesman (or, in this case, a Katrina refugee desperate for work) is the ability to play off of the customer (or, in this case, rube).

Let me also add another clue, it was completely quiet on her end. I’ve heard hundreds of telemarketers trying to sell me anything from a 10th mortgage at 39 percent daily amortized interest rate to window washing supplies for my submarine and they all had one thing in common: Noise. There are hundreds of telemarketers slaving away in those offices, crammed together like cattle, chatting away, each trying to outdo the others in personality, urgency (good deals go quick, you know) and sales. The Number One rule of telemarketing is to speak loudly and talk quickly; the fine print isn’t so obvious if they sound like a they’re a World Cup announcer at the final game.

Scammer: “In addition, we will also give you a one hundred dollar voucher for gas and you don’t have to use it all at once.” Maybe she sensed my hesitation and decided to sweeten the pot a little. Who wouldn’t pass up free gas (yes, the kind for my car)?

I laughed, given that it cost that much to fill up one tank in my truck, I would easily use it all at once. It was a small clue, but Clue Number Three, was that she was so out of touch with the price of gas, telling me there is no voucher. She would have joked about it. Meanwhile, all of these things are starting to build as she continues to ask me questions.

Scammer: “You’re over 18 years of age, correct?”

Me: “Yep”

Scammer: “I know you are but I have to ask anyway. Okay, your address is…” and she rattled it off.

Then, this was the cincher….this was the mother of all clues, so much so that it was proof that it was a scam. The next thing she said blew the whole thing out of the water for me and broke open the whole scam. The funny thing was that she didn’t mean to do it either, which is even more telling. Here’s what she said:

Scammer: “Can I get your account number…” My jaw dropped at the boldness of such a scam, while she audibly corrected herself. “I mean, what is the name of your bank.?”

And if that was the valid question, it is still out of the ordinary bounds of a logical question you would ask someone over the phone. If I was such a good customer in some financial organization’s circle, they would know where I do business; then again, nothing worth while is ever offered over the phone.

Me (bluntly): “I don’t give out that information,” I said… and then I waited a second, just enough to tell me she was scamming me. If it was an actual deal, if she was actually going to give me $500 worth of free airline tickets and gasoline, she would have said that that information doesn’t matter and it was just a formality… but she didn’t. And I didn’t expect her to, because I knew that I was about to be taken for a ride. She didn’t say anything. Scammers don’t spend long on their prey if they realize they’re going to put up a fight. You ever see a tiger get kicked square in the head by a gazelle? The tiger usually goes after someone else. Scammers would rather move along to easier targets and cut their losses, and my unwillingness to cooperate made me a difficult quarry from the beginning.

I hung up, a little miffed that my information is so readily available by anyone who wanted to find it. What I don’t understand is how they got my cell phone number in relation to my address. Then again, you can find out about anything these days. Case in point:

A Google search of the number (727) 683-1125 brought up nothing, but the area code is in a little county called Pinellas, Florida. A reverse directory only shows me that it is an unlisted number, and if I was going to have a business, the best and cheapest way to advertise is the phone book (that’s a clue something sneaky is on the rise). Interestingly enough, I discovered that there is a scam alert website set up by the St Petersburg Times warning people about a scam called “The Sweepstakes Scam.” Sound familiar? Interesting, but let’s take it a step further. Let’s give the mystery number a call and see what happens. Since I get free long distance, I won’t be wasting my money, just my time. The lady that answered sounded stereotypical, like someone I would expect in that part of Florida, older, heavy smoker, slightly irritated and bothered that she has to work the Friday shift when Cousin Skeeter was going to take the fan boat out on the ‘glades and poach some gators. That and she hasn’t had a beer since breakfast.

She said: “Thanks for calling Distinct Advantage, what number did we call you at?” (I just love it when people end a sentence with a preposition. "Where you at?")

I couldn’t understand her very well (hey, if you’re doing something illegal, I’d slur my company name too), because it was difficult to understand her through her Summer Teeth (you know, some are here, some are there… some are missing), but I finally figured it out. I asked her what city she was in and she said she couldn’t tell me until I told her what number they called me at (assuming I was returning a message, and funny thing is of the five calls they made to my cell phone, they didn’t leave a single message).

Me: “You can’t tell me what city you’re in!?!” I asked, gruffly acting a little put off. (Oops, I eat crow: for those keeping score, two preposition-ending sentences in a row. Well, this is my blog, I can be hypocritical if I want to... damnit, that's another one).

Scammer Receptionist: “Clearwater…what number are you calling from?”
Me: “Thank you,” and I hung up.

Googling "Distinct Advantage" in "Clearwater, Florida," doesn’t come up as a match for anything spectacular, but get this: Distinct Advantage in Largo Florida is an exact match. According to, Distinct Advantage (at 10500 Ulmerton Road, Suite 726-302, Largo, Florida, 33771) shares information and stories that are spot-on with my situation. The only difference is the phone number. The Website says (866) 545-5486. I called it, and I got an automated receptionist who asked same thing as the other one did, “What’s your phone number?”

I did a little snooping and discovered that Distinct Advantage (dba: Freedom Gold, Agents Travel Network, Capital Vacations, Florida Passport) is on a hit parade of Websites, lauded as a horrible scam by hundreds of people, the kind of scam that leaves bank accounts Death Valley dry. A good example to get a real feel for what the company is doing to average Joes like you and I is this one (it includes a list of source phone numbers and return numbers for the various companies):

Now that I’m positive it was a scam I kick myself that I didn't strung them along for a while, making up fake information to see how far I could take it. Oh well, it's hard to scam scammers when you're in the kids' book section with a two-year old tugging on your shirt, "Is it mommy? I wanna talk. Is it mommy?"

I'm just glad I figured it out early, as many people didn’t. Don’t be one. Especially you, Mom and Dad, I've got an inheritance to protect (Ooooo, I just got a cold shiver, as if somewhere, somehow, a lawyer is suddenly scratching my name off of an important document, and at the same time, my brother is standing over him, grinning and wringing his hands like Mr. Burns with dollar signs in his eyes, "Excellent").

Seriously, I need to work. Stop reading now. My kids need shoes. C'mon, turn it off. Really now.

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