Tuesday, February 24, 2015

the high price of cell phones, Russian style

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In life, there are givers and there are takers. I usually pride myself on being a giver. Except for today. I was an unwitting giver. And I would like to punch the takers in the throat.

I'm a long-time Verizon customer. Like, "since they were 360 Communications and I had a bag phone" long-time customer. I'm not sharing that because I'm proud of it or because I own Verizon stock or think they hung the moon. I'm just one of those "ain't broke don't fix" kind of people.

Lately I've been a little torqued about the amount I pay monthly for two smart phones. The signal is good, the phones are good, the service is good. But I seriously was thinking about going to one of those pay-as-you-go deals you see at Target. Because I really hate paying this much money for freaking cell phones. 

Well, I wondered if Verizon had figured out my ploy because lately I've been getting a lot of calls from them. I don't usually have my cell phone with me during the day, so the calls went unanswered. There were no voice messages just "missed call from Verizon" on my screen. Whatever.. let 'em call.

Today I just happened to be working where I could have my cell phone nearby. Around 11:30 am, it rings. Verizon. Ok, I thought, I'm game, so I answered. They were calling to do a brief survey about the quality of the service, and by completing it I would receive a $20 credit per line on my account in the next billing cycle.

Ah, a credit? From Verizon? Love it! Now we were talking.

The nice sounding man asked me to verify some basic information, asked his questions, received my answers, thanked me very much, and good bye and good riddance. I went back to work.

Around 1:30 pm, the phone rang. Verizon again. Sheesh.....

"Hi, this is Troy from the Verizon Call Center. I'm so sorry we got cut off and am returning your call."  

"Thanks Troy, but I wasn't on a call with you. I talked to someone about a survey earlier this morning, but that was a few hours ago."

Troy paused. "Is this ####### and am I speaking to Cynthia Futch?"

"Yes, but I am telling you I did not call just now...."  Ok, this was getting a little weird. 

It got weirder.

"Mrs. Futch, I was just speaking with someone who claimed to be you but who had a very thick Russian accent and was trying to order some expensive devices on your Verizon account. I noticed some unusual call activity on your account and became suspicious. When I asked for verifying information, she disconnected the call. That is why I returned the call to your number. I believe your account has been compromised."

Long story short, the survey I took earlier was not a survey by Verizon Wireless. It was a Social Engineering Attack by a hacker in Russia. 

The gentleman who conducted the survey sounded very American, very polite, very normal. But he managed to get me to do something I KNOW better than to do - and that is to "verify" (aka GIVE) personal identification information to someone who initiated a blind call to me without verifying the identity of the caller. 

Curses of all sorts!

After talking through the mess, shutting down accounts, blocking numbers, re-assigning ESNs, cancelling pending device orders, and identifying bogus international calls to Cuba, the helpful people in the Verizon Fraud Department (and no, that is not the billing department, ha ha) told me they deal with this same scenario multiple times a day. Multiple Times a Day. 

Sometimes the hackers say they're calling from a prison. Sometimes its an overseas money scam. Sometimes - and this is a true case the Fraud supervisor worked on - they call about something completely unrelated like medical insurance or pharmacy information. Their job is to keep you on the phone divulging little bits of information just long enough to worm into your account. They they divert your number to a clone device, order hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of equipment, rack up international charges And very often they are able to route their calls so they look legitimate. Just like the call I took that said Verizon... but wasn't. 

For about an hour, it was a nightmare. And then it was over. I'm still on the lookout and guarding against potential long term detrimental affects, but it looks like the savvy folks at Verizon were on the ball and were well trained enough to protect me from the bad guys. And from myself. 

So be smart. Don't verify personal information unless YOU initiate the call and know who you're calling. Don't be so quick to believe information received from numbers you don't recognize. Don't put so much of your life online and on your phone that you make the bad guys' jobs easy. 

And remember that - sometimes - what you pay for is what you get. This time, my monthly fees got me a crackerjack security detail from my phone company. I'm not so sure the pay-as-you-go people would care quite as much. 

I used to wish that one day I could go to Russia. I wish a lot of things. I wish I was getting the $20-per-line credit on my account in the next billing cycle. I wish I didn't pay so much money to Verizon for our coverage every month. I wish creepy greedy people weren't always trying to take take take.

For now, I'll settle for a monthly fee that pays professionals to do their job. I may never get to Russia, but hopefully for now, Verizon has kept Russia from getting to me. 

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