Olson: Reliving my 5 minutes with a phone scammer

It’s a quarter to 11 on Tuesday morning when my cellphone rings. My Verizon caller ID says it’s from a Rockford number I don’t recognize.

On the other end is (of course) a recorded message telling me that because I’ve been such a good credit card holder, I now qualify for 0% interest on all of my credit cards.

It is clearly my lucky day. I dial “1” to capitalize.

I’m transferred to a woman sitting in what sounds like a room full of people jabbering away, all trying to run their particular short con.

She never gives a name but asks mine. I tell her “Eric.” Her voice sounds pleasant over the din.

I decide to lie to her for as long as I can to waste her time and see what her scam's about. It seems only fair. She and all of her co-workers are wasting the time of so many other people, after all.

I try to sound both enthusiastic and gullible.

She compliments me on my excellent payment history, then asks how much I owe on my credit cards. I tell her $11,400. She asks what credit card it is that I have (which you would think she would know given that she’s aware of my sterling payment history) then tells me that yes, I’m eligible for a 0% interest rate.

I'm not sure how she knows what I’m qualified for if she doesn’t even know my last name, but I'm going with the flow here.

I tell her I have “Discover, the card that pays you back!” (I do not.) Next, the rubber is going to meet the road – we’re going to pull up my credit card statements.

She says she needs to know if the card is expired, so I give her a bogus expiration date. Then, of course, she needs the card number, “starting with 6.”

That’s very helpful as I have no idea what number Discover cards start with.

“Oh, yeah. It’s 6 ... 867-5309 ... 69-69,” I tell her. Then, of course, we need the security number on the back. Finally, she asks for the customer service number on the back of the card.

"Wait, so you need the customer service number to lower my interest rate?" I ask.

The mask comes off abruptly. She tells me to take the card and do something unprintable with it. I was disappointed – I had thought we were getting on quite well.

I've got half a mind to call back and ask for her supervisor, only I can't call back, and her supervisor probably would say something even nastier.

So that’s the scam – or this particular one, anyway. Call people with a recorded message, promise 0% interest on all their cards, get them to provide the details from those cards and then rip you off.

Please don’t fall for this. If you get any recorded message that claims to be from your credit card provider, hang up and call the number on the back of your card.

It’s a shame that our cellphone carriers seem unable to eliminate this kind of spoofing. Many people essentially will no longer answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize because they assume it’s some recorded message or two-bit overseas hustler who will say nasty things to you once you catch on.

My phone now offers me the option to not even ring for numbers not in my contacts.

The Federal Communications Commission has demanded that companies put a stop to these nuisance calls, and there are some improvements reportedly on the way. There's even an online form you can fill out to complain, whatever good that will do.

But the free-for-all continues for hustlers calling you from God knows where, who try to threaten or fool you into giving them your personal information.

The scam call I took lasted almost five minutes, according to my phone. A few minutes after, I call the Rockford number that showed up on my phone.

The person who answers clearly is not in the room full of phone scammers. She sounds like a younger Midwestern woman, laid-back enough to answer the phone and talk to someone she doesn't know for a second.

I tell her that I work for a newspaper and just got a spoof call from her number. She apologizes. I tell her I don’t blame her.

Then she tells me she got one of those calls from a DeKalb number the day before. I apologize, and tell her that if she gets one of those calls from my number, I swear I didn’t do it. We laugh.

“No problem, man,” she says.

At least there are still a couple of people out there willing to pick up the phone for a number they don't recognize. It's not always a scammer on the other end.

But it usually is.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle, a Shaw Media publication. Reach him at eolson@shawmedia.com.