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Scary Scams


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October doesn’t have the corner on the market when it comes to scary stuff. Just a few weeks ago, on a hot summer evening, my brother and his wife had the scare of their life.

It was past 11:30 when my sister-in-law’s cell phone rang, waking them from a dead sleep. The name on the phone came up as their thirty-something daughter. She and her husband live in the same city but across town from them. It was unusual for a late-night call so hearts were already racing. My sister-in-law answered her cell to hear this: 

 “DON’T HANG UP, DON’T CALL THE POLICE, DON’T SAY ANYTHING OR I’LL KILL HER!”

It was a male voice, angry and shouting. My brother jumped from the bed and while the caller continued to yell obscenities and threats into the cell phone, my brother called the police from his cell phone. The police told him that this call was very likely a scam; they had had several reports of this activity. A quick phone call to his daughter confirmed that they were fine. My sister-in-law hung up. They didn’t go back to sleep that night. I’m not sure they’ve had a good night’s rest since. 

Here’s how the scam works: Hackers are able to get into a cell phone’s contacts and make a call so that it appears they’re calling from a known number. They’ll typically look for parent/grown child relationships. (Easy if you have your parents in your phone as “Mom” or “Dad.") Eventually, they’ll demand money to assure a loved one’s safety. The callers are impossible to track. It’s straight out of the movie, Taken, and a heinous, not to mention illegal, way to make money. 

I asked my brother if he called the local TV station about the incident but he thought a story had been done recently. Maybe that was the case; just a week or so later, I came across a news report about this same scam in the metro Atlanta area. Still, not everyone will see the news so it’s important to get the word out. 

Of course, these sorts of scams—preying on our worst fears about loved ones’ safety—have been around for quite a while. They work best on people who are trusting and technologically uninformed. The same sort of thing happens to writers every day. 

I can’t tell you how many writers I know who, in the early days of self-publishing, paid thousands of dollars for something they could have ordered from the printing department at an office store—for less than fifty dollars. 

 And though publishing scams are still ubiquitous, there are plenty of other scams that target writers. (See Writer Beware, an excellent and exhaustive database sponsored by SFWA.) These scammers are getting more and more creative, too.

Last month, an author friend was contacted by a teen about a “literacy initiative.” After praising her books, she asked the author to send her books and “support.” When my friend had been unable to find the initiative online, she asked for proof of legitimacy. The young woman has not been heard from since. 

I suppose there will always be people out there who will prey on our hearts and our vulnerabilities. So keep yourself informed! Do your homework! Always check for legitimacy and/or reviews of any organization or business before giving them anything. 

And when you do hear of a scam, spread the word. When you know the truth, it’s not as scary out there.

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