Frigid weather and brutal winter storms can get just about anyone ready to say they'd like to take a cruise. But is it possible that a simple 'Yes' to a basic question on a phone call — like "Can you hear me?" — could burn your wallet? Even if you don't pull out your credit card or sign up for anything?
Many of us have heard warnings about a "Can you hear me?" scam. But just how does this one work? Will you really lose money if someone records you saying "Yes" to a basic question?
Is it time to hit that panic button?
Consumer watchdogs report that some fraudsters are pretending to be calling from a cruise line. Or a home security service. Or maybe the caller pretends to be associated with Social Security benefits somehow.
The conversation can start out innocently enough with phrases like "Are you the lady of the house?" or "Are you the homeowner?"
Or they're asking a lot lately: "Can you hear me?"
Many variations are being used in robocalls to get a consumer to engage and say "Yes," according to the consumer watchdog groups. A recorded call could be setting you up to generate proof — you said 'Yes' after all — that you signed up for a service.
Adam Levin, chairman and founder of CyberScout and author of "Swiped," said the say "Yes" trick is just another example of how creative robocallers and crooks have become by exploiting and tweaking a famous advertising line from Verizon, which asked "Can You Hear Me Now?"
"The caller begins the conversation by asking 'Can you hear me?'" Levin said. "If, and when you answer 'Yes,' the fraudster is off to the races. They simply combine the recording with other personal information they have gathered from or about you, including credit card information."
Even if they don't have your banking information, the scammer might play back a person's "Yes" remarks and try to intimidate you into paying up, according to the Better Business Bureau.
"The sad thing is that it can be really effective in trapping the consumer into paying for something they're not getting the benefit of," Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan.
Think of some kind of subscription type services that might ding your account each month.
"The difficulty is that the consumer may have hung up on the caller thinking they hadn't done anything wrong," Duquesnel said.
Duquesnel said 62 consumers in Michigan have reported complaints about "Can You Hear Me?" calls in the past few days. But none reports any loss of money. The Michigan Attorney General's Office reports two complaints.
The BBB nationwide noted in its alerts that this type of "Yes" scam has historically targeted small business owners but the BBB has been hearing more reports from consumers.
Some business owners elsewhere report that callers try to verify the business address. The person confirms the address and says "Yes." And suddenly the business gets invoices for $599 for an "optimal search engine" service. When the business owner says they never agreed to that, the company plays back the "Yes" recording.
Leland K. Bassett, chairman and CEO of Bassett & Bassett Communication Managers and Counselors in Detroit, said he's gotten the "Can you hear me?" calls, along with other annoying or scam calls.
"It's a psychological sales trick," Bassett said.
Get the person saying "Yes" early in the conversation before you try to close a deal.
"It bothers me to see people taken advantage of — and they're usually elderly," Bassett said.
But there's another twist here, too.
The consumer could unknowingly be confirming that the phone number connects with a live person and that 'Yes' makes the phone number ripe to sell as a lead, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission.
The lists might be sold to fraudsters or even regular businesses.
"The answer 'Yes' by itself is not valuable enough for you to be be defrauded," said Jan Volzke, vice president of reputation data at Hiya, which offers an an app that provides its users with caller ID and spam protection services. Hiya also monitors unknown calls throughout databases to track activity of scammers and others.
To cause real problems, scammers would need more data such as a matching list of credit card information about you or other data. And he doubts that these callers have all that data just yet.
Instead, Volzke said he expects that many of these oddball calls that we've been receiving lately are trying to confirm the phone numbers that have a real person regularly picking up.
Lately, I've received a fair share of calls that don't have anyone on the other end. Just silence. I say nothing as well and hang up.
Volzke said the silent callers are likely programmed calls to verify phone numbers and who is answering the phones.
"By picking up, you delivered a response," Volzke said.
Consumers are warned that they should not divulge even what seems like small bits of personal information, as a thief can patch together information to obtain credit in a victim's name or commit another crime, according to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office.
"The information requested might seem minimal — for instance just the numbers off the bottom of your check or your prepaid credit card number," according to an alert from the Michigan attorney general.
In some cases, the consumer might discover they signed up for a cruise or services when the bill hits the mail or the credit card. The trouble could hit with something as simple as a $10 or $15 charge at first.
For that reason, double check your credit card statements to look for odd charges. The sooner you spot a problem, the easier it can be to resolve and put a halt to what are really unauthorized charges.
Just as we're told to simply hit delete when we get a spam e-mail that directs us to click on a link, we're now being told to just hang up on an unsolicited call that asks "Can you hear me?" or uses another question to solicit a "Yes" answer.
Better yet, don't even pick up the phone and give fraudsters more hope that a live one might be on the other end of the line.