The call finally came, twice actually. The first was in the morning with the recording informing me that I owe the IRS money and—if I don’t pay—court proceedings will begin immediately. And then the phone number I was expected to call. I hung up and noticed that the number on caller ID was a different one, which I dialed within seconds. I listened to a recording, informing me that that phone number was not in service, but I already knew this was a scam. Then, early evening, the call came again—pay up right away or be hauled off to court. This time I dialed the number they provided (twice) in the recording. And another recording said that all lines were busy but I could leave a message, which I did not. Again, the caller ID number was different than the number I dialed, different than the one in the morning and—when I dialed it—once again, I was informed that the number was not in service.
They’ve become pretty good at this, the crooks making these calls—never using the same number so their tracks are almost impossible to trace—frightening enough people into paying millions of dollars they do not owe. And where is the government in all this? No ability to stop them (remember “I’m Rachel, from card member services”?), so thoroughly annoying that you almost want to pay so they’ll stop calling. The State Department admits that it can’t control the hacking on its site, so why should we believe that lowly citizens can be protected? We’re all left in the open these days, which may be the most frightful thing about the current explosion of fraud everywhere around us. One day will we discover that all of our assets have been removed from our accounts—an amount so massive that the banks will no longer reimburse us for our losses?
I’ve had twenty plus calls from a number professing to be the circulation division of New York magazine, always beginning with the innocuous question, “Are you receiving your New York magazine regularly?” Since I subscribe, I am, yes, receiving it regularly, but I never answer their question. I tell them instead that I do not renew subscriptions over the phone. That I have a multi-year subscription that is not up for renewal. That doesn’t matter. They call me a few days later and the entire sequence begins again. I’ve called the editorial office of New York, and they’ve confirmed (as I already realized) that the calls are a scam and they, also, have no way of stopping them in spite of reporting them to the FBI. It’s beginning to appear that fraud can’t be stopped; it can only metastasize so that it infects everything.
Fraud is a growth industry in the United States, but don’t expect that anyone’s going to help you stop it. You’re on your own. It’s increasingly difficult for many people to realize what’s happening to them. At least with the international calls, it’s possible to detect the foreign accent, the semi-articulate speech of some of the scammers, and no number listed for caller ID. Still, this is the sequence I’ve had to put up with for several years:
“Hello?” I say.
The reply: “Your computer.”
“What about my computer?”
“Your Microsoft computer.”
“I don’t have a Microsoft computer.”
“Microsoft windows on your computer.”
“Which computer are you talking about? I have several.”
“It needs fixing, an upgrade.”
The last time I actually said good-bye to one of these jokers was years ago. Instead, I conclude with the obscenity of the day—my obscenity—increasingly foul as the calls persist. That generally works for a few more weeks, and then the entire process begins again. Am I on every sucker list in the United States? Or is every person in the United States on their list? Will they never give up?
Dozens of these fraudsters send me daily emails, many of them from overseas. The Nigeria scam (the millions of dollars in a bank that will be shared with me if, first, I’ll send them a few thousand dollars to pay the service fees) now come from all over Africa, Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific. Then the domestic ones, claiming to be the Bank of America or some other American bank where I have never had an account. They want me to respond via the Internet in order to claim funds in my account. I certainly don’t have much faith in American banks in regards to their honesty, but I also know which banks I have never had any dealings with. Then there are the ubiquitous emails with the subject category: Free $50 Target card, $100 Starbucks card, $75 Wal-Mart card and every other blasted chain store in the United States. Often the same email will be resent to me half a dozen times, one right after another. (Forget all the other scams: bigger erections, bigger breasts, bigger feet, bigger tomatoes [no joke]).
So far I’ve been talking about scams that aren’t very complicated to identify. Alarmingly, there is another entire area where I have learned to be even more assiduous and still I get taken advantage of virtually every week. I’m talking about the physical stores (supermarkets, pharmacies, chain stores) where what is rung up is not the shelf price or the advertised price. GIANT, the biggest grocery chain in Washington, D.C., tries to cheat me every time I venture into one of their branches. If I buy half a dozen items, at least one item will be rung up at the wrong price, often a matter of several dollars. Recently, I picked up a large roaster chicken, with a printed label telling me it was nine pounds, but since it didn’t seem that heavy, I asked to have the chicken weighed. Sure enough, it was two pounds less than what the label said, so I said I didn’t want it.
I told the checker that the label would need to be reprinted, with the correct figure after it was weighed again. Yet, after I’d finished paying for my other items, I moved discretely off to a distance and watched as the chicken was put back with the others, waiting for the next sucker to come along. It’s not difficult to conclude that the grocery chain intentionally overcharges for items in order to increase its profits. Although I try to be attentive with every item I purchase in chain stores, such diligence is very difficult—particularly with a line of impatient people behind me—so too often I end up paying more than I should. Every week, in fact.
I’ve come to loathe American capitalism, almost every aspect of it. The subtle and not-too-subtle daily fraud. The frequent errors on billing statements for credit card companies, bank statements, telephone bills and the red tape created so that you give up in your attempt to get that excess charge of, say $15, removed from your bill because you simply don’t have the necessary time (endless phone calls) to get the error corrected. I’ve become pretty good at catching most of these false charges, but what I don’t have is unlimited time to unravel them.
When I read the other day of still another huge fraud that large corporations get by with, I can’t say that I was particularly surprised. My quota for outrage was used up years ago. Still, how about this one? When big corporations are fined billions of dollars for malfeasance, guess what? That huge fine is a tax deduction for them, and since they can deduct it from their income, they end up paying lower taxes (and the whole thing is already rigged so that businesses pay lower taxes than individuals). Thus, if the fines are deducted from the income they would claim, and their taxes are reduced, guess who ends up footing the bill for those taxes? All of us pay the taxes of those corporations for their fraud. Only in America, as Harry Golden used to say.
On a more personal level, I did finally curb my obscenities with the telephone scammers. I politely interrupt them in their spiel, and ask them, “Excuse me, do you have a penis?” (Or the equivalent, if they are women.)
There’s usually a delay, followed by a hesitant response, “Yes.”
“Well, put it in your ear.”
Then I hang up, knowing that that remark is little compensation for the latest harassment, but it does put a smile on my face. An expensive smile at that.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.