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Wireless-only phone users have become a one-stop shop for scam callers

The latest call came the other day. This time it was from someone claiming that Nadege Joly owed more than $200 in electricity bills.

Joly, 42, is used to it by now.

"I get a scam call on my cellphone at least once a week," she told me. "Each time, they say I owe them money and I'm going to get in trouble if I don't pay."

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It's the dark side of wireless life. As more people abandon their land lines and go wireless-only, thus becoming much easier to reach, scammers have grown increasingly brazen in dialing for dollars.

A survey being released Friday by the mobile communications firm Truecaller found that three-quarters of U.S. scam calls now are received on wireless devices. That's a big jump from last year, when half of all such calls still came in on land lines.

Some other findings from the survey:

• About 27 million Americans reported losing money to phone scams over the last 12 months, up 53% from a year earlier.

• Total losses were estimated at $7.4 billion, or an average $274 per victim.

• Men are bigger suckers than women. About 15% of men reported being duped by phone fraudsters, compared with 8% of women. People ages 18 to 34 were the most frequently targeted.

"The scammers go where the targets are," said Tom Hsieh, Truecaller's vice president of growth and partnerships. "As people move away from land lines, so do scammers."

Joly, a Houston resident, is typical of millions of consumers. Her mobile phone is now her only phone, so once that number became accessible to scammers, they came out of the woodwork to try to fleece her.

It's not hard for bad guys to find you. Your phone number might be posted online or available from public records. Or it may have been part of a hacked database.

Last year, health insurance giant Anthem reported that as many as 80 million members had their names, phone numbers and other personal information accessed by hackers. Similarly massive security breaches have been announced in recent years by JPMorgan Chase, Target, EBay and others.

"Your information is everywhere," said Ryan Manship, security practice director with the Minnesota consulting firm RedTeam Security.

Aside from purchasing hacked numbers on the black market, Manship said, scammers also obtain people's contact information from old handsets that were never completely wiped clean. "You'd be surprised how often that can happen," Manship said.

Once scammers put together a call list, they use automatic dialing machines to go after potential victims. When a call is answered, the scammer gets on the line.

Maybe it'll be the so-called granny scam, in which the caller claims a loved one is in jail and needs bail money right away. Or it's the Microsoft scam, in which a purported technician offers to help debug your computer.

"We're seeing a lot of the one-ring scam," said Bart McDonough, chief executive of Agio, a New York security consulting firm. "That's where your cellphone rings once, and then you call back not realizing it's a 900 or international call that can cost like $10 a minute."

An especially popular racket last year was the IRS scam, which involved a call supposedly from the tax agency and a threat of arrest if overdue taxes weren't immediately paid.

The IRS said this week that such calls are now the most common tax scam. Since 2013, it said, at least 5,000 victims have been bilked out of more than $26 million.

"I got that call last summer," Joly told me. "The man had a foreign accent and sounded like he was reading from a script."

Experts say you should immediately hang up if you receive a call announcing that you've won a prize or are due some money, or if you're pressured to make an immediate decision.

If a caller claims to be from an official agency or a well-known company, verify that the call is legit.

"Use common sense," said Jon Rudolph, principal software engineer at Core Security, a Boston consulting firm. "The IRS doesn't call people for information."

Ask for the caller's name, phone number and location. Tell them you'll call back. Needless to say, if they won't provide this information, the conversation is over.

If they do give a number, Google it and see what comes up. If it's not the actual agency or company, walk away.

Mike Davis, a researcher at Seattle consulting firm IOActive, said you're only increasing your chances of being targeted by scammers any time you dole out personal information online. Internet surveys that promise free gifts or sweepstakes winnings are especially troublesome, he said.

"Even if these websites are legitimate, they often sell your information for profit in a secondary market, which is where scammers can learn intimate details such as your Social Security and work phone numbers," Davis said.

RedTeam's Manship said it's a fact of modern life that most people are tethered to devices that double as phones and computers.

"You can be found by scammers," he said. "There's no avoiding them."

So just remember: Your grandchild isn't rotting away in some overseas jail. Microsoft isn't calling to fix your computer. And the IRS never, ever calls taxpayers on the phone.

But do pay attention if the agency sends you a letter.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 22, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Within easy reach of scam callers" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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