AUGUSTA — To protect yourself against scams, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills recommends a new phone etiquette: Don’t worry about being polite.

If you don’t know who’s calling, don’t answer. Let it go to voice mail.

“Anybody who’s a real friend or person of interest is going to leave a message. You’ll recognize their voice,” Mills said. Scammers typically won’t leave a message. 

If you do answer the phone and don’t know the caller, hang up.

You don’t have to be polite and listen, Mills said.

“Maine people are by nature kind; they want to listen,” she said. “But there are thousands of these scams. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are leaving the state of Maine every month. What we’re hearing about is the tip of the iceberg.”

Money being swindled “is money that could and should be used to support families, education, police,” Mills said. When she was campaigning in Auburn a few years ago, she visited a retired couple who said they had to leave their home because the bank foreclosed on it.

The couple said they fell victim to a scam and lost their savings, leaving them unable to pay their taxes. “It was so sad,” Mills said.

Phone calls are a big way in which Mainers are being scammed, and senior citizens are more likely to be victims for several reasons: they’re more likely to be home, to have a landline and to answer the phone.

Some are too trusting.

Mills also cautions that just because your caller ID says the call is from Maine, or from the IRS, that doesn’t mean it is.

“It’s easy for scammers to mimic that number on your caller ID to make you believe that it’s somebody you know,” or a trusted agency, Mills said. “It’s called spoofing.”

Another trick is called “neighboring,” mimicking a number to have a 207 area code or start with a community’s phone numbers, 784 (Lewiston) or 626 (Augusta) to make the call look like it’s local, even if it’s coming from another country.

“(The scammer is hoping) that if I’m from Augusta, and I see it’s Augusta I’m going to pick it up,” said Martha Currier, who heads the AG’s Division of Consumer Protection.

If you do get on a call with someone trying to convince you to do something, “do not engage,” Mills said. “Don’t not press 1 to talk to a live person or press 2 to get removed from their list. All that does is tell them they’ve got a valid number.”

“You’ll get called again and again and again,” Mills said. “You’ve got to hang up.”

Common phone scams continue to pretend to be threatening calls from IRS agents, lottery scams, calls claiming to be the government, or telling people they have won the Jamaican lottery or the Publishers Clearing House. To get their money, they must pay a fee.

Too often people reason that maybe they can get $1 million if they send $1,000.

“People say, ‘What if it might be true? Shouldn’t I respond?’ No,” Mills said. “There is no Jamaican lottery, there is no Canadian lottery and you have not won it. They do this to thousands of people every day.”

No government agency or business is ever going to call you to “confirm” your personal information, credit card number or Social Security numbers, Mills said.

“They may say, ‘I’m calling from Medicare. I don’t want you to have to wait in line for customer service,'” Mills said. “‘Our call center is really busy today. Let me take a minute and deal with this right now.’ Our advice is to hang up. Call the business that you know to be true. Too many times people don’t do that. That’s when they get taken in by a scam.”

If you get an email asking for similar information, never call the number that shows up in the email that looks like TD Bank with its logo, Mills said. Even if it looks like the real deal, always look up the number on your own.

Recently Mainers have encountered scams through Facebook messenger, where someone they “know” has heard of a grant and wants to “share their good fortune.” Often, it’s a fake profile of a friend.

Individuals who are scammed are embarrassed, but it can happen to anyone, Mills said. It’s important that what happened be reported to the Attorney General’s Office.

The information helps track trends and is used to educate consumers. Victims names are never revealed, Mills said. Often the information is forwarded to federal authorities. Sometimes consumers do get some money back or arrests are made.

One example of how calls from consumers led to action was last year when  police raided call centers in India and arrested dozens for posing as IRS agents to steal cash from U.S. citizens.

Fake IRS calls still happen, Mills said, but after some of the India call centers were shut down, consumer complaints about fake IRS calls went down.

The AG’s Consumer Protection Division number is: 800-436-2131, or email: [email protected].

For more information:

“When the phone rings and you don’t know who’s calling, hang up,” says Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Better yet, screen your calls. Too many Mainers are being scammed, Mills said. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Attorney General Janet Mills says not to trust calls you get out of the blue promising winnings, offering help or threatening that IRS agents will arrest you if you don’t pay. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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