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Old state agency phone routes callers to scammers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What do you do if you try to report a scam to the state, only to be referred to a hotline that tries to, well … scam you?

That’s what happened last week to a Los Lunas woman who was in despair over paying $449 in what ended up being a computer scam.

She is hoping her credit card company will cover her loss, but in the meantime, she donned her good-citizen cap and decided to report the incident to the state.

What happened to her next is a weird and twisted journey through a bureaucracy that involves what are now-abandoned state agency phone lines. And the line that is answered by scammers is not a new problem. It’s been going on since last summer.

Here’s what the woman was told when she called the supposed government information line (1-800-825-6639): “Congratulations. Just for calling in today, you may qualify for a $100 retail rebate certificate, reedemable at major retailers like Walmart, Target and many more. … Press 1 now to find out if you qualify. … It’s yours to keep for just a small fee.”

Clearly a scam because: No. 1, the state does not sell people retail certificates and No. 2, you shouldn’t have to pay a fee to win an award.

That phone number was once a general information line for the state, said Wyndham Kemsley, spokesman for the state’s Department of Information Technology.

Later last week, the message on that line had mysteriously been changed to some sort of garble featuring a man with a British accent saying something about a “call restriction,” followed by a muffled woman’s voice talking about a “missing element.”

As I said, it’s a twisted tale, but I’m walking you through it so you also don’t end up using inactive state phone numbers.

The Los Lunas woman started out by calling a number for the Office of Inspector General in the state’s Human Services Department, a legitimate state agency that investigates fraud in public assistance programs. She left a message, and the person who called her back recommended she call 505-827-6000. That number once belonged to the Attorney General’s Office, but no longer does. Now when you call it, you get a recording directing you to that problem 1-800 number and the changing menu of suspicious taped messages.

So why is this happening?

The Department of Information Technology, created to offer streamlined services to state agencies, said it deactivated both phone lines some time ago. Once it does that, it has no say over how those lines are used, spokesman Wyndham Kemsley said.

“We really don’t have control over what happens to the phone number after we discontinue it,” he said.

However, he said his office was advising the Human Services Department to stop giving out the defunct phone number.

The AG’s Office says it took all its phone lines in-house and out of the hands of the information technology department about a year ago because it wanted to make sure its ines were secure and because it could get the same service elsewhere at a better cost.

Bottom line: you can avoid this whole mess by reporting scams to the AG’s Office at these phone numbers, which take you directly to the agency: 717-3500 or toll free at 1-844-255-9210.

*****

Back to the poor woman in Los Lunas.

Before she got caught up in the phone mess, she was subject to one of those nasty computer takeover scams. There’s a lesson in this one, when it comes to AOL customers.

When the woman found that her AOL Gold service had been removed after her computer was hijacked, she looked up a number for AOL on her computer’s search engine but ended up with “Damon.” Damon took a remote look at her computer, said her problem was that her computer showed lots of activity with entities in Russia and China and referred her to a company that took her $449 in exchange for a bogus “anti-hacking” service. (Fact check: She knows no one in Russia or China.)

Here’s what to know: AOL does not work with third-party companies and won’t refer you to any. It has its own tech support services, whose fees are “not nearly that amount,” said Joe Holden, with the company’s fraud department.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at emarks@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam.

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