What's going on? Why did con-men deactivate my parents' alarm?
December 25, 2010 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Someone scammed my parents. But what, exactly, is the point of the scam? They called my mom, claiming to be from AT&T, saying that something in her house was causing interference all over the neighborhood, and that they needed to come over. They came, showed fake credentials, identified the interference as coming from my parents' security system, deactivate they system and left.

After they left, my mom called the security company, who told her their units don't cause interference and that they phone company can't just turn it off. They're coming out to fix the system on Monday. AT&T confirmed the guys weren't their guys. My parents called the police, who took a statement and cautioned my parents to keep all their doors looked.

Okay, but what's the scam?

Surely MOST people the scammers do this to are going to do what my parents did -- call the security company and, in the meantime, be very vigilant, locking down their homes. So if the goal is to deactivate alarms and then break into un-secure homes, the thieves are taking a big risk. Wouldn't it be just as risky (or less risky) to break into random houses. Now my parents are all on the alert -- and so are the police.

My wife suggested they were looking for houses that had stickers SAYING they had security systems without actually having them. That makes sense. Once in, they could search the house for "interference," to see if there's a burglar alarm or not.

But then why deactivate alarms when they actually find them? That just calls attention to themselves, as it did in the case of my parents. Why not just leave those houses, saying, "We couldn't find the source of the interference. Looks like a false alarm"?

In case it helps, here are details my mom sent me. (My parents live in Bloomington, Indiana.)

Dear Friends and Family:

On Thursday, while both my husband and I were out of the house, I received a cell phone call from a man who claimed to be an AT&T engineer. He asked me to meet him at my house right away because something in my house was interfering with cell phone reception in the neighborhood. When I heard that I might be causing a problem for others, my brain turned off and my alarm and guilt took over. I did not ask the obvious questions--"So, how come there is nothing wrong with my cell phone reception?" or "Why are you phoning my cell phone and not my land phone?"

We met at my home and there were two of them, both in their mid-20s--very presentable and polite. They showed me badges with their photos and the ATT logo. They brought in a geiger counter like device and aimed it at the electronic things in the house. Then they pointed it downward and said the signal indicated that the interference was coming from the basement.

I followed them down and they zeroed in on the box belonging to our security system. They unlocked the box and aimed their device at it. They said it was the cause and I had to get it changed or I would be fined by the FCC. (Turns out the FCC does not fine individuals.)

When they left, I called the security company--they tested and said the signal had been disrupted. The system made the same clanging noise, but no signal went to the police. They had a technician come out to fix it the same day.

I called ATT and was told that the men were not from them. They advised calling the police. An officer came to the house to look around and take a report. He told me to lock all the doors I don't usually bother to lock--like the side door to our garage.

I've nervously awaited the now-fixed security system to go off for the last two nights, as I fully expected the fake engineers to return. Nothing so far.

The obvious lesson--never let ANYONE in your home without checking them out. And don't trust badges.

You know how they say the elderly get scammed the most? Damn, now I have to admit to being elderly....
posted by grumblebee to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Surely MOST people the scammers do this to are going to do what my parents did…

Don't bet on it. Also, your idea about how they might be sussing out the sign-but-no-system houses is good.
posted by Etrigan at 3:43 PM on December 25, 2010

They are betting that most people don't call the alarm company right away, I bet.

Also, if they've been inside the house, they might know the layout, now, and easiest places to break in?

posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:44 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

They get to have a look inside and see if the house is worth their trouble. Some people might not get around to calling their security company immediately. If the house is ripe and the security system is compromised they have an easier score.
posted by KevCed at 3:45 PM on December 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

They are betting that most people don't call the alarm company right away,

That's the thing, Grumblebee, its christmas
posted by infini at 3:46 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I tend to think they were casing the place. Now they know what's inside, which security features they have, etc.
posted by SMPA at 3:49 PM on December 25, 2010

Also, maybe those guys are just the advance guys—the presentable ones. You've seen them, and they look professional, but then they send their colleagues, who you haven't seen around, later on to rob the place. Although I may be imagining that criminal outfits are larger and better organized than they actually are...
posted by limeonaire at 3:49 PM on December 25, 2010

1. Get in house and disable alarms
2. Rob house
3. Profit
posted by fire&wings at 3:53 PM on December 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'd modify fire&wings to be:

1. Get in house, case the joint, disable alarms in a way that requires physical intervention
2. If house is worth robbing, break in during the day before security company comes out
3. Profit.
posted by plinth at 3:58 PM on December 25, 2010

Why bother to use two conmen?

Unless one was doing something dodgy while the other distracted your mom.

So watch out for identity theft, stolen checks, stolen jewelry, et cetera.
posted by jamjam at 4:24 PM on December 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

See if that were me, I'd arrange for the guys to come round and have the police waiting for them.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 4:28 PM on December 25, 2010

Response by poster: How do you get the police to wait for them?
posted by grumblebee at 4:30 PM on December 25, 2010

How do you get the police to wait for them?

Well I'd arrange an appointment and then, after calling AT&T to make sure they were scammers, I'd call the police and have them waiting for them. Easy arrest surely?
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 6:09 PM on December 25, 2010

A lot of people leave home to visit relatives this time of year, so once they get the alarms disabled they can go back and rob the empty houses.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:15 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I_pity_the_fool, as I said in my post, my parents already called the police. The cops took a statement, told my parents to keep their doors locked, and left. In my experience, cops won't just do a stake out at your house because you ask them to, even in situations like this. But if you know something I don't know, please share!

Also, I don't understand how my mom can arrange an appointment. She has no way of contacting the scammers. She does have the number the used to call her, but when she tries it, no one answers.
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 PM on December 25, 2010

I think he meant before your mom met them at the house. In that space after the first cell phone call, if your mom called ATT to confirm it was not their techs, then she could call the police and ask them to meet her at the house to meet the "techs" on their first visit.
posted by CathyG at 7:47 PM on December 25, 2010

They are, as they say, CASING THE JOINT. pls get a real security system in there pronto.
posted by tristeza at 7:57 PM on December 25, 2010

Why bother to use two conmen?

Each can focus on looking for different things. Paintings, art, high-end electronics, what are the lines of sight in the backyard, is there a inground pool, a dog that stays outside, how many exits, et cetera.

In my experience, cops won't just do a stake out at your house because you ask them to, even in situations like this.

In Brooklyn this is true. The dispatcher is holding 12 other jobs for them and as soon as they have your information for the report it is on to the next one. In Bloomington, Ind., it might be different and it never hurts to be persistent and follow-up with the detective division or community affairs officer if there is one. Of course this is a moot point right now b/c you said the scammers do not answer the number your mother has for them.
posted by mlis at 8:03 PM on December 25, 2010

What I want to know is how they put her cell phone number to a street address?

Was any mail stolen? Like a cell phone bill?
posted by fontophilic at 8:28 PM on December 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't think they are necessarily "casing the joint". Burglers usually don't want to come back, they are usually opportunists. I can see this happening:

1. Get in the house.
2. Burgler #1 keeps you occupied, asking you questions, having you show him around the house to keep you away from Burgler #2, who
3. Is rummaging around looking for anything to steal that they can carry off right away..jewellry, cash.
4. Once #2 has some stuff, or can't find anyway, they switch off you secruity system to keep your mind busy on that, and leave.
5. They never come back again.

I don't think many theives want to come back twice, particularly since you might have contacted the police; theives are opportunists, and like to make themselves scarce.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:40 PM on December 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Unless they are on Mefi you will never know (you never really know with this site, they just might be).

I would change as much of the security as possible as soon as possible. Keep someone home for New Years, buy a dog, up the security package.

Hell, I would write a note on the door saying "We know that you are con men. The police are now keeping an eye on the property. All passwords have been changed and all valuables have been moved out of the house.

I always opt for the lowest possible security. The door on my old car did not lock and I never felt a need to fix it; I go for the idea that it is better to spend my life not worrying about that stuff and 99% of people are good. However you now have a target on your back, you went from low risk to high risk the second they called.
posted by Felex at 11:43 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I were your parents I'd actually feel safer staying elsewhere until the security system is fixed.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:51 PM on December 25, 2010

I think everything said here is on point, I'm just worried about your parents (who sound like perfectly aware intelligent people, just ones who had something scary happen to them.)

Just locking won't keep a robber out, if they want in, especially with a disabled alarm system - is it likely these people saw nice/flashy stuff when they came in? Have your parents thought about moving valuables temporarily to a safety deposit box or just a friend's house? Have they thought about staying somewhere else for a couple of days?

Why did they pick your parents' house over the neighbors? Did they already have info (ie cell phone number) on your parents before coming?

Maybe I'm just a worrier. But that's seriously creepy.
posted by R a c h e l at 12:04 AM on December 26, 2010

This is a delicious mystery, but I'd suggest Occam's Razor. Most distraction-type burglaries happen as described in other answers above: a fake utility employee knocks on the door, and while the homeowner is distracted with the "emergency," an accomplice takes personal property.

But that didn't happen here. From your description, your mom received a phone call asking her to return to her vacant house, and then the AT&T guys worked on the "problem" until it was resolved to their satisfaction. I'd suggest that everything was legit, there was no scam, and the customer service person on the other end of your mom's call to AT&T is the weak link in the story. What we call "AT&T" is broken up into so many different fiefdoms that it's possible (even likely) that one hand not knowing what the other is doing is SOP.

Not to mention, I can't get past the call to your mom's cell phone. Only AT&T would have that info. And how did they know the security system was in the basement, unless their "geiger counter" actually did detect whatever cell-jamming juju the security box was emitting? If this really is a setup for some future burglary, it's so elaborate and well-planned that it seems pulled from a Hollywood caper movie. (None of this applies, however, if your folks live in a mansion stuffed with valuable antiques, rugs, and pirate gold. In that case, it's time for a moat.)

Perhaps you can ask your mom to call the repair guy's number back on Monday, after the holiday. In the meantime, you can Google the number, or even spend 25 bucks for one of those services that give you a name and address. (Or post it here, and someone will do it for you!)
posted by turducken at 12:17 AM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Something's not quite adding up here. In your description of events you said that the security company is coming out to fix the system on Monday. But your mom's email states that the security company had a technician come out to fix it the same day (which, according to the email, was Thursday) and that she nervously awaited the now-fixed security system to go off for the last two nights [emphasis mine].

Have you actually talked to your parents and verified that this happened specifically to them, or is it possible that they're just forwarding one of those urban-legend-style emails? (the ones involving burglary and security system scams tend to make the rounds during the holidays)
posted by amyms at 12:31 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good catch, amyms. I was mistaken. The security company came out almost immediately and fixed it. It's not fixed and fully operational. Also, my parents own two barky dogs. I called them (my parents, not the dogs) last night, urging them to stay in a hotel until Xmas is over, but they said they felt safe with the dogs and the working alarm. And they emailed me this morning, saying they were fine, and that nothing had happened last night, except that the dogs growled for about 15 minutes around 10:30pm.

Here's some more info:

- According to my mom, the two guys never left each other (there was never a time when one was in one room and the other was in another room).

- Also, she swears that they were never out of her sight -- that they followed her everywhere.

- When they left, they suggested to her that she get the alarm fixed ASAP. I guess that was con men trying to sound as plausible as possible, but, if so, they overdid it, because my mom took their advice seriously and literally, and the security firm was willing to come out, even though it was a holiday.

I like turducken's idea that these really WERE AT&T guys, but that doesn't quite add up. The FCC doesn't fine people because they have devices that interfere with reception. And both AT&T and the Security company said that the technical claims the guys made were bullshit.

I will ask my mom for the phone number and run some searches on it.

Turducken, I don't think it's that hard to get a cell-phone number. I doubt my mom has tried to hide it. It may even be in the phone book. There are sites all over the web that let you do various searches, e.f. reverse phone-number lookups, for a small fee.

Maybe they targeted my parents' house partly BECAUSE they were able to get my mom's number.
posted by grumblebee at 6:49 AM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and my mom said they didn't go all over the house. They came in, waved a geiger-counter-like device around, headed straight for the basement (where the security system was), deactivated it and left. They didn't go in any other rooms, other than the ones they had to go through to get to the basement.

My parents live in a somewhat typical middle-class house. It looks like it might be worth robbing, I guess (likely to have nice TVs, etc), but there are much nicer homes on their block. As far as they know, none of their neighbors have reported anything.
posted by grumblebee at 6:52 AM on December 26, 2010

Well I think most people's alarm systems are in the basement. Mine is. There's the keypad by the door(s), but there's also a main component in the basement that I believe has something to do with where the main phone line enters the house.

My small-village police department has my cell phone number on file: I once left my car on the side of the road for a tow truck to pick up, and the police office called my cell phone -- I was surprised that they'd been able to go from license plate/registration to my cell number on file in their office so quickly. So, it's around. Maybe they have some kind of in with your security company, or some other company to whom your mother gave her cell phone number. Lots of applications, companies, registrations, Panera rewards cards, etc, ask for your cell phone number now, and your parents might not have realized that they didn't need to give that information.

Do your parents know for a fact that these people didn't try her land line first? Do they have caller ID?
posted by thebazilist at 11:40 AM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: I just did a reverse-search on the phone number (my mom emailed it to me) and got a name and address. I'm not sure if there's anything useful I can do with that info. It's a cellphone number. It could have been a stolen phone.
posted by grumblebee at 11:51 AM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: Okay, it's even odder than I thought. Sorry to get the details out in drips.

So the guys DIDN'T tell my mom they'd disabled the security system. What they did was check out the system -- they waved their voodoo geiger counter over it, said, "Yup! This is probably causing the interference. You should get the security company to fix it." Then they left.

My mom, thinking the guys were legit, called the security company, who said, "That's bullshit. Our machines don't cause interference. But we notice yours isn't transmitting..."

So it's weird. It's like the guys wanted my mom to call the security company and find out her system was down.
posted by grumblebee at 12:14 PM on December 26, 2010

Best answer: I'm going to side with the fact that this was legit. I work for a major wireless company and deal with this exact type of situation (radio interference usually due to rogue booster/repeater equipment). A few things I'll point out:
1. When troubleshooting interference our guys can usually pinpoint the source of interference down to a pretty obvious location such as a house. Once this is done the first thing they'll do is knock on the doors in the area and ask if they have any radio booster equipment operating. They'll also check if you are a current customer and usually try calling your cell phone to reach you.
2. I can guarantee that 99% of the time if this happened at my company and you called general customer service they would say the same thing. Engineers don't remark accounts or communicate in any way that they are handling interference issues with a customer.
3. Engineers and techs aren't lawyers. The standard, de facto response to everyone is that the FCC will fine you if you don't shut it off. I've actually gone through trainings that espouse saying EXACTLY this regardless of whether it's a business or individual. As I understand it there are laws against unlicensed radio equipment in certain bands and there are penalties of some sort.
4. Radio interference can be caused by many things. If the alarm system has a wireless component (very common now) it's possible it would cause interference. I will point out that I have never heard of a security/alarm system causing problems though.
posted by Octoparrot at 5:32 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Update (looks like some of you were right!)

From my mom:

As of today, it seems the scam is not a scam. ...ATT cannot authenticate it's own workers or procedures. After being told the engineers who came to our house were scammers, I'm now being told they were for real. There is an FCC investigation as well--but I have not heard back from them. Meanwhile, I have had a fed-exed letter from ATT threatening a year in jail and a $10000 fine if I don't cooperate. I'm supposed to de-activate our security system, which is supposedly interfering with cell phone reception in our neighborhood--the security company denies this is possible.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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