Protecting against newest scams

Published Aug 10, 2017 at 4:00pm

Once upon a time, being on the Do Not Call list meant that marketers Did Not Call.

There were always scams, of course, and fake charities, but federal regulators say the volume of scam calls is on the rise, a message underscored by Friday’s news release from the Florida Supreme Court warning that state’s residents to beware of a new rash of calls claiming to be from court officials. Many scammers work out of overseas fraud mills that “spoof” caller ID to make their internet-based calls look local -- new technology such as auto-dialers makes it easy to target many more victims, increasing the number of people caught in a web of fraud.

Federal regulators and phone companies are working feverishly on ways to nip the latest scams in the bud. But the current surge only underscores grim reality: As regulations shift to meet current threats -- a process that can take months, even years -- innovative crooks will be scheming up new methods. In the end, the best defense Americans have is common sense, skepticism and a sense of responsibility.

For starters, that means keeping abreast of the latest tricks. Some scams are easy to spot -- like pitches to refinance student loans you don’t have. These are irritating but best ignored (beyond reporting them to your cellphone carrier).

Others seem more legitimate -- stern, assured-sounding voices claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service or Microsoft or emails that look just like ones from your own bank. Again, the best defense is healthy skepticism and caution. Clicking on email links that ask for sensitive financial data or installing software to let a dubious “tech support” person into your computer will never be a good idea.

It is also good to know that governmental agencies and telecommunications companies are working to combat scams.

The Federal Communications Commission is giving carriers more advanced weapons to filter rip-off calls. T-Mobile, for example, is starting to flag phone numbers that receive a lot of complaints with a caller ID that reads “SCAM LIKELY,” and as of March, cellphone companies have increased power to block numbers with a pattern of suspicious calls

In the meantime, a number of cellphone apps have sprung up that promise to block robocalls and other frauds. And regulators across an alphabet soup of agencies are doing their best to catch and punish fraudmongers: Last month, the FCC proposed a $120 million fine -- its largest ever -- in a Miami-based travel-fraud bust.

But it’s increasingly clear that government will never be able to protect Americans from the scams spreading like wildfire across the internet and cell-phone networks -- at least not nearly as well as Americans can protect themselves.