COLUMN: Ignoring the call of the scam artist

Phone and email scams prey on fear and paranoia, and can cause even right-thinking people a moment of doubt.

I didn’t catch the beginning of the voicemail, because the serious-sounding fellow leaving the message started talking before the beep, but his point was clear:

In no uncertain terms, I was in trouble.

I wasn’t sure what I’d done, and as I listened to the man speak – in a tone of voice so halting and robotic I wasn’t sure if it was a recording – my egregious offenses became no more clear.

The garbled, static-filled message lasted about 20 seconds, though I was only able to pick up a few key words and phrases – “law” and “attorney of record” among them.

Then, before hanging up, he left me with this:

“If you choose to ignore this warning… then good luck to you as this unfolds upon you.”

A simple goodbye would’ve worked just fine.

I deleted the voicemail and went on with my day. Just another scam, I figured – not unlike the one that cropped up on the Peninsula earlier this year in which smooth-talking callers pretend to be from the Canada Revenue Agency and demand payment for taxes in arrears.

It reminded me of a similar call I received more than a dozen years ago.

I had just moved to northern Alberta, and was a week into my new job at a small newspaper. I’d recently switched my B.C. cell-phone number for Alberta digits, and early one morning – about 6 a.m. – my new phone rang.

I picked up, and after listening for a moment, groggily told the male caller I had no idea what he was talking about. He got angry, and asked me if I was aware it was against federal law to aid and abet a criminal.

I hung up the phone, went back to sleep and never heard from him again. To this day, I have no idea if it was a scam – and if it was, what was the endgame? – or simply a wrong number.

Whenever these things pop up, I find myself wondering how successful they can possibly be, and who falls for them.

I mean, I get as excited as the next guy to receive a royal email from a Nigerian prince in dire straits, but the impulse to help him quickly subsides.

But a few minutes after my most recent call, I made the short walk from my office to a local coffee shop, and that’s when the doubt crept in.

Maybe that was a legitimate phone call, I thought.

The man’s first few sentences were cut off, so maybe I missed something.

The area code was Toronto – that seems legitimate. Should I call back?

No, of course I shouldn’t. For starters, nothing I’ve done in my life that would ever necessitate such a phone call from someone in the law enforcement or legal fields. I mean, I used to make some prank phone calls when I was 13, but there wasn’t even call-display back then, so there’s no way I could get pinched for that after all this time, right? Right?

How many years in prison does the old “is your refrigerator running?” gag get you anyway?

Somebody get my lawyer on the phone.

Of course, I soon snapped out of it – the coffee helped – and realized how foolish I was being, but that’s when I realized why some people actually get caught up in these types of schemes.

They get scared. They get nervous. And start to question every, single thing they’ve ever done – from filing taxes incorrectly to harbouring criminals in their guest room.

The scam artists prey on doubt and peddle in fear.

But thankfully – despite a moment of panicked reflection regarding my teenage life choices – I did not fall victim to the charade.

Instead, I think I’ll take my caller’s advice, and see how it all unfolds upon me.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be OK.

Nick Greenizan is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.