The home phone rang this week. That doesn't happen very often so I knew it would be one of three callers: my mother, my mother-in-law ... or a scam caller.
"Hello, is that Mr Hills?" (No, it's not.)
"I'm calling from Spark. (No, you're not.)
"I have to tell you that we'll be switching off your broadband in 15 days." (No, you won't.)
"Do you have a daughter?" (Long pause.)
Now, that conversation went very ugly, very fast.
It is likely that I made a mistake: previously, I've berated scam callers, challenged their integrity, asked them what their mothers would think of their behaviour. Anti-scam watchdog Netsafe says that answering back may provoke the scammers into turning nasty. My number will have been shared on a "harass list".
And if that's how they behave towards those who are confident in taking them on, how much more threatening are they towards those who are vulnerable?
Phone and email scams are a continuing problem. One victim told how the scammer expressed concern about the condition of his computer, and asked for access. "Then all of a sudden, he'd got into my computer and transferred $5000 out of my credit card and into my general banking account."
Then this week, 78-year-old retiree Margaret Taylor nearly lost her life savings to a sophisticated phone hoax. Now she's planning to tour rest homes to warn others of the dangers of giving personal details over the telephone.
Worst of, the old-style landline that used to connect us to the world has now become the ideal tool for scammers to identify victims – because the people most likely to answer a home phone are old and alone.
Banks and telecommunications companies are victims too. Their brands are tarnished by these dishonest and abusive callers, their customers are hurt, and often they will end up picking up the tab for stolen money.
That's why the Telecommunications Forum is to launch a formal code this month, in which the big telcos agree to work together to identify, trace and block scam numbers.
Chief executive Geoff Thorn tells me it's sometimes costing customers tens of thousands of dollars. "It damages people's trust in the telecommunications industry," he says. "We're doing what we can to block them, but people need to be suspicious. And they need to report these calls to their carrier."
That's important, because scam calls will often be routed through several countries and several providers. Scammers are proficient at spoofing phone numbers so a call from some criminal call centre in Eastern Europe or Asia can appear to come from a local number.
When telcos blocked one set of fraudulent UK phone numbers recently, the scammers switched to another set of phone numbers that mimicked a British bank.
In the case of my call, I reported it to Spark whose very helpful call investigations team were able to trace it back to a United States number – but there the trail went cold. They suspect it was routed through the US from further afield. Nevertheless, they were at least able to block that US number; in the future, the new code will empower them to share that number with other telcos, here and overseas, so collectively they can work to track down the criminal gangs running these scams and hand over their details to police.
As for Geoff Thorn, the man representing telcos has got rid of all his landlines – from his office, from his home. "I've taught my mother to use Skype."
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with these tips?
Written by Jonathan Milne. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.