Fake customer service phone numbers connect consumers to scammers

BySimone Chavoor KGO logo
Wednesday, July 19, 2023
Fake customer service phone numbers connect consumers to scammers
The fraudsters create Google Ads to make sure their fake phone numbers appear at the top of search results.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Whether you're locked out of your Facebook account or trying to rebook a flight, your instinct might be to call customer to fix your problem -- but as experts warn, the person on the other end of the line could be a scammer.

Finding a real human being to assist you is easier said than done, with most large companies preferring customers go through their website's self-help system. Companies may bury their customer service phone number, or may not have one at all. And when information is hard to immediately find, many folks turn to Google.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, some scammers are using Google to masquerade as legitimate companies' customer service departments. The fraudsters create a fake website with a fake phone number, then list it on Google for unsuspecting consumers to find. Often, the scammers will pay for Google ads to make their page -- and phony number -- float to the top of the search results, a tactic the Washington Post calls "malvertising."

The FTC says that once a consumer calls a fraudulent customer service number, the scammer may try one of several known tactics. They may tell the victim that they must pay for assistance, or convince them to download software that allows the scammer to take over the victim's computer or mobile device. If someone tries calling an airline to change a flight, the scammer may tell them there's a fee for that service. And in a recent 7 On Your Side report, a woman who tried to return defective products to Etsy was told her account was compromised and she needed to buy gift cards to block the hackers trying to steal her money -- and read the gift card numbers to the fake "customer service" operator.

Q: How can I protect myself when looking for a company's customer service contact information?

A: Don't trust search engines! Search results ads -- the results listed right at the top of the page -- are usually created with a "self service" portal. That means no one has reviewed or verified the information in that ad. They're usually marked with "sponsored" right at the top. Instead, go to the official company website and look for their contacts. Or, look at your receipt, ticket, or product packaging for contact info.

Also: keep calm and slow down. Scammers love it when their potential victims are in a hurry or are running on high emotions -- and if a consumer is trying to find help with a frustrating problem quickly, they're primed to be scammed.

Q: If I'm on the phone with "customer service," what are some red flags to look for?

A: If an operator answers with "customer service" or "help line" but does not say the name of the company, be on alert. Scam operations sometimes use the same phone number for multiple fake listings. Also, be wary if someone asks for any kind of financial information, such as your bank account or credit card number. And if someone asks you to pay with gift cards -- that's the biggest, reddest flag of all.

Q: What should I do if I'm on the phone with someone I think is a scammer?

A: Easy -- simply hang up.

Q: What should I do if I think I was scammed?

The first thing you should do is notify your bank or credit card company, as well as the company you were trying to reach. You can also freeze your credit report if you gave up personal information that might be used to steal your identity. You may want to notify local law enforcement, and the FTC on their website.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

7OYS's consumer hotline is a free consumer mediation service for those in the San Francisco Bay Area. We assist individuals with consumer-related issues; we cannot assist on cases between businesses, or cases involving family law, criminal matters, landlord/tenant disputes, labor issues, or medical issues. Please review our FAQ here. As a part of our process in assisting you, it is necessary that we contact the company / agency you are writing about. If you do not wish us to contact them, please let us know right away, as it will affect our ability to work on your case. Due to the high volume of emails we receive, please allow 3-5 business days for a response.

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