A Security Expert Takes on Phone Scams and How to Avoid Them During COVID-19

Identity theft protection pro Carrie Kerskie says tools like T-Mobile’s Scam Shield and other precautions can help stop fraudsters in their tracks.
Oct 29, 2020 11:00 AM ET
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By Jason Adams

When it comes to identity theft, fraud and cyber threats, Carrie Kerskie has seen it all — and then some.

“This stuff can be overwhelming to people,” she says. “In the almost 15 years of working with victims, I’ve actually had two victims commit suicide over it. When it comes to frauds and scams, I’ve seen people who’ve see their entire life savings gone overnight. It can be devastating to people.”

Based in Naples, Florida, Kerskie is president of leading identity theft restoration and consulting company the Kerskie Group, as well as author of the book Your Public Identity: Because Nothing is Private Anymore and the self-help guide Protect Your Identity. She is also the host of a new podcast, “The Carrie Kerskie Show,” which is aimed at further informing consumers on how to keep themselves — and their identity — safe from scammers.

“These types of crimes, it’s a ghost,” Kerskie adds. “You never know who did it. You don’t know how they got your information. You don’t know where they are.”

Thankfully, Kerskie is something of a ghostbuster when it comes to stopping these ghouls, and has practical advice on how to keep yourself and loved ones safe from scammers, especially during these challenging times when all of us are more reliant (if not straight-up dependent) on our mobile devices than ever before.

Can you walk me through what it is you and the Kerskie Group do, and how your background as a private investigator led you to be a top identity theft expert?
We are a full-service private investigation agency, and have been in Naples since 2001. We initially did all the traditional stuff, from cheating spouses to insurance fraud to … you name it, we investigated it. Around 2007 we started getting calls from identity theft victims. Back then there weren’t a lot of resources to help them. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) was just starting to get some information on their website, but it was still a little bit difficult for people to navigate. We offered to help. We said, “We haven’t done this before. We’re not experts at this, but we’re happy to look into it for you.”

Then word of mouth just spread from there. We started getting more and more calls from victims, and then within my industry my peers wanted to learn how we were doing what we were doing. I started creating training programs and reaching out and warning people in my community — and people kept saying, “It’s too much information to remember, put it into a book!” I wasn’t a writer, so I went to the bookstore and I pulled out all the books on identity theft, and I couldn’t even figure out what they were trying to explain to people. I thought, “If I can’t understand this, how is the average person supposed to?” So I wrote Your Public Identity: Because Nothing is Private Anymore, which came out in 2011 and got a great response. Today Kerskie Group focuses exclusively on identity theft restoration and consulting.

Somewhat ironically, identity theft wasn’t anything I chose — it chose me.

How big of a piece of the puzzle are our mobile devices to this whole world of identity theft?
Huge. Because what people often forget is that their smartphone is not just a phone — it’s a computer that can make calls. The technology has advanced so much that we can’t keep up with it. Most people don’t understand the flow of information in the digital age, yet we’re embracing this technology, we’re embracing things like apps without understanding the who, what, why, when and how behind them.

A lot of the elderly I work with, and even my own parents and in-laws, are afraid of things as simple as turning their phone on and off, because they think they’re going to break it. Which, of course, they’re not. It’s just a matter of helping people overcome that initial fear, the fear of the unknown. So familiarize yourself and be comfortable with these devices so you can use them properly. Play around with the phone. Turn things on, turn things off. Go into the privacy settings, make adjustments. If you don’t know how to do something, there’s always some YouTube video or tutorial on the internet that can walk you through things. And before you download an app to your phone, look at the terms of service privacy policy!

In your experience, are older adults particularly at risk, and if so, what can be done to protect them?
People my age and a little older — I’ll turn 50 next year — we’re what is referred to as the “sandwich generation,” because we’re still raising children but also taking care of aging parents. We’re also still working and in the thick of our careers, so we have to use and embrace mobile technology.

There’s extra responsibility, and, like with anybody, the more responsibilities and tasks you have at hand, you try to get things done faster — so you don’t always stop and think at times, and things get rushed through. That’s one of the big things with scams: people are caught off guard, and often react instantly to things.

I always recommend an open line of communication, whether you’re talking to your aging parent or your child. People make mistakes, and if they fall for a scam it doesn’t mean that they’ve done something wrong. It’s just there was a really good conman on the phone.

Americans have already lost over $80 million to COVID-related scams this year. Losses due to coronavirus scams increased 70% in May and June alone. How have phone scams changed or accelerated in the last few months?
Bad guys always use fear and intimidation. Those are the two big factors in their scams. Right now, everyone is on high alert. People are scared about COVID because there is a lot of unknown. We haven’t been dealing with COVID that long, and there’s a lot of confusion out there and people are scared.

We’re seeing so many smishing texts, which are quickly replacing phishing emails. I know for myself, not long ago I would get maybe one every six months. I’m getting two a day now.

Right now with COVID people are holed up in their homes, they may have a compromised immune system and oftentimes, especially with older folks, they’re lonely. They might get a text message, and the person’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I must have the wrong number” — and then they start a conversation. That is a new scam, where they just randomly text people, see who they can engage in conversation, hoping they’re going to get a lonely person on the phone. They befriend them and then the next thing you know, they’re asking for their personal information or money.

We’ve worked with people who’ve fallen for these sweetheart scams, and have lost everything. One woman, she took out a second mortgage on her house to send money to this guy, and of course, he was gone and she lost her house.

By the way, customers can forward a suspicious text message to 7726, and it helps screen out the smishing messages.

T-Mobile recently rolled out its new suite of free, network-level safeguards with Scam Shield. In your view, how do these sorts of protections help keep people safe?
Scam ID and Scam Block are great protections. Most times people have never even heard the term “spoofing.” The way we explain it to them is that I can call you and say that I’m calling from the IRS, and I can make the incoming number mimic the IRS number. It’s going to let you know that that is a spoofed call so you know you don’t need to answer it. That I think is a game-changer.

I also love the T-Mobile PROXY number that allows you to have a second number. I think that is brilliant. I think that is huge. Phone numbers now are becoming equivalent to your social security number, except everywhere you go now, they ask you for it.

By being able to put that second number in there, you’re protecting your core number which you would only give to close family, friends, doctors’ offices — or ascribe to your financial accounts, because the banks use that phone number as an ID verifier. We’ve worked a lot lately with victims who have had their phone numbers ported or who’ve been SIM-swapped.

As soon as the bad guys get control of your primary number, they could contact one of your credit card issuers. If they call their automated phone service, it will identify your account based on the spoofed number they’re calling from. It will tell you the last three transactions and it will give you additional information on that card. You don’t even have to prove who you are. That’s how much the phone number has become an ID verifier.

I also like the Free Number Change feature. With older women in particular, we find that when a scammer calls, they often try to be polite to them. But the bad guys become extremely aggressive, and they will be extremely vulgar on the phone. They will be extremely threatening to the point to where these women are terrified. They think that person is going to show up at their house and do physical harm to them. So having that ability to change their phone number if they need to because they’re being harassed by these people, that’s another benefit.

What are some other steps all of us can take to be vigilant against phone scammers?
There are three easy ways to identify a scam. Every single phone scam we’ve seen has this:

  • First, there’s a sense of urgency. They’ll insist, “You have to do this right now. You can’t hang up, you can’t call us back. It has to be done immediately right this minute!”
  • Second, there is a consequence. “If you don’t do this right now you’re going to go to jail. If you don’t do this right now, you’re never going to see your loved ones again. If you don’t do this right now, we’re going to cancel your Social Security number. If you don’t do this right now, were going to come and arrest you.” That sense of urgency and a dire consequence, even though things don’t work that way. If it’s really your bank or the IRS or the Social Security Administration, they’re going to contact you by regular mail. They’re going to contact you by email. It’s going to be more than just one phone call.
  • Third, they demand something specific — which most of the time is a form of payment. If you hear the words “gift card, Western Union or wire transfer,” hang up. It’s just that simple. Any organization, especially federal agencies, don’t take gift cards as payment. If anybody says “go to the store and buy me gift cards,” hang up the phone. Don’t engage. Don’t have “fun” with them. The more you engage on the phone, they’re going to flag you as someone who’s a talker, so they’re going to come back with a different scam or they’re going to have someone else who’s a little bit more skilled in closing the deal call you back. Just don’t even engage at all, just hang up the phone.

In terms of beating phone scams and scammers and shutting this whole type of criminal enterprise down, where do you think we are and what do you think the future around this looks like, and are we on the right path?
I think we’re on the right path. I don’t see this problem going away overnight. Bad guys are always finding new ways to get between you and your information and you and your money.

The more that we can do to give tools to consumers to help them identify the technology that we’re up against, like Scam Shield, I think that is a great step in the right direction.

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