Scammers are flooding the United States with Chinese-language robocalls, causing major headaches from coast to coast.
These new robocalls are a lot like the ones you’ve already gotten on your phone at all hours of the day and night: Your phone rings, you pick up, and after a brief pause or maybe a quiet click or beep, a prerecorded voice message meets your ears. The recording, which often sounds like a young woman, usually delivers a message about lowering credit-card rates or buying into cheap health insurance.
If you fall for the bait, you’re transferred to a live human who will try anything to get you to hand over your credit-card or bank account info.
The important thing to remember is that sales robocalls are illegal in the United States. So, don’t expect the person on the other end of the line to follow through on whatever deal they claim to offer. You’re much more likely to fall victim to an identity theft scam or credit-card fraud than to score a deal from one of these spam callers.
The new Chinese-language version of these calls targets immigrants. The robocalls deliver a recorded message claiming to be from the Chinese consulate, saying the recipient is in trouble with Chinese officials, or sometimes that a package is waiting at the Chinese consulate that needs to be picked up.
Then, the robocall asks for a deposit or fee, demanding a credit-card number or bank information. Sometimes the robocall or live operator who follows it makes a threat, suggesting that more trouble will come if the person doesn’t willingly hand over their financial info, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
In New York City alone, police estimate at least 30 residents had been scammed out of $3 million, according to National Public Radio.
The Chinese Consulate General in New York says it has posted dozens of alerts on its website warning about the scams. "We would like to restate that the Consulate General in New York would not ask for personal information, deliver parcel pick-up notice or ask people to answer inquiries from police department by way of phone calls. The Consulate General would not ask for bank account information," it warned.
The scammers are also upping the ante with a tech trick called “spoofing.” Spoofed calls can fake caller ID numbers, making them look like they’re coming from a familiar number, nearby area code, your hometown or in this case, the Chinese consulate, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which also issued an alert.
So, even if you don't speak Chinese, why would you get so many calls? The scammers don’t know who they’re calling, and it costs virtually nothing to place a phone call, so if they hit a few thousand English-speaking phones for every one Chinese speaker that’s totally fine with them.
This scam uses many of the same ploys used on unsuspecting English speakers, say in the scam where the caller pretends to be from the IRS and is demanding payments on back taxes that don’t really exist.
What to do:
•Never give money to any caller demanding it: If you speak Chinese and receive one of these threatening calls, never hand over your bank or credit card information, no matter how scary the recorded message might sound. Nobody – including the Chinese consulate, the IRS and immigration officials – will ever call you out of the blue to demand money, and they certainly won’t pepper your phone with robocalls.
•Block numbers that hit you with repeated robocalls: If one specific number has been giving you a headache, you can block the number manually from your iPhone or Android smartphone. On the iPhone, click the little “i” next to the number on your recent calls list and then tap “Block This Caller.” On Android 6.0 or later you can find the number on your call history, tap it, then tap “Block.”
•Use an app: Apps such as Nomorobo, Robokiller and YouMail, to name just a few, really can help curb robocalls. I use them, and they’ve successfully thwarted thousands of spam calls to my cellphone. Many of the apps are free for at least a week, then cost around $2 a month or nearly $20 a year after that. (The apps present this to you as “upgrades” or “premium.”)
•Sign up for the federal Do Not Call list: The Do Not Call list is still your best bet for avoiding robocalls of all kinds, and that includes this new Chinese variant. I spoke with the FTC about the Do Not Call list and the many conspiracy theories that signing up for the list puts you at a greater risk of phone spam.
According to the FTC, getting access to the Do Not Call list not only requires valid sign-up information (you can’t just request access to it anonymously) as well as an access fee. These are factors that push away scammers, and the FTC says it has never had to bring a robocall case against any company or group which has access to that list.
You might feel like robocalls are a never-ending disease, but the FTC already has had some huge wins in stemming the rising tide. The commission regularly hosts expos and forums to find new ways to stop the pesky calls and wages pricey lawsuits against telemarketers it catches using them. As recently as June the FTC nailed robocall operations that it says had made billions of robocalls.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.