Did my mom just get scammed?
August 16, 2013 9:57 PM   Subscribe

A strange man approached my mom at work tonight claiming to be from Verizon, asked for her by name, and insisted she take a backup battery charger from him. (Full story with additional weird details below the fold.) This is surely some sort of scam, but how? Have you heard of this happening to anyone else?

From Mom: "Really strange thing happened @work! A guy came up to me & asked me if I was [Firstname Lastname], & of course, I said yes! Then he gave me a Powerbank 2800 Super Magicstick! He said Verizon was very sorry for all the trouble I was having with mine, so he wanted to bring me one, personally! I told him I was sure it was not me who was having the trouble, but he insisted I take it! I didn't know what the device actually was, but someone told me it was a mobile power source. Very, very strange!"

Relevant details: She does use a Verizon, with a very old phone and a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan. She hasn't contacted them with any issues, ever. The Powerbank 2800 Super Magicstick is a real thing, but not made or sold by Verizon. I've told her to not plug it into anything and to throw it away somewhere away from her home.

What the heck?
posted by rhiannonstone to Human Relations (39 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Apple iOS devices are considered by many to be more secure than other mobile offerings. In evaluating this belief, we investigated the extent to which security threats were considered when performing everyday activities such as charging a device. The results were alarming: despite the plethora of defense mechanisms in iOS, we successfully injected arbitrary software into current-generation Apple devices running the latest operating system (OS) software. All users are affected, as our approach requires neither a jailbroken device nor user interaction.

In this presentation, we demonstrate how an iOS device can be compromised within one minute of being plugged into a malicious charger. We first examine Appleā€™s existing security mechanisms to protect against arbitrary software installation, then describe how USB capabilities can be leveraged to bypass these defense mechanisms. To ensure persistence of the resulting infection, we show how an attacker can hide their software in the same way Apple hides its own built-in applications.
Perhaps it's something along the lines of this, and the "Verizon" guy was socially engineering her way to her password(s)? Or if not her phone, then someone else's?
posted by flippant at 10:14 PM on August 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Call the police?

That sounds potentially dangerous.

My first thought was that the device is rigged to send sound (like a bug or wiretap) or gps tracking... but I guess it could be rigged to do worse...

I would not throw it away randomly if there is a chance the device could hurt somebody.


Is there surveillance footage of the man at her workplace or in the parking lot or something?? Tell the police if this is the case.

Also, she needs to tell her employer. They need to keep the workplace more secure.

Sure, it could be a weirdo doing something nice/weird, but does your mom really want to take that chance?

Call the police. At the very least, let them fingerprint the object and keep it as evidence, let the bombs quad x-ray it, or whatever.

Don't let them blow off this as a concern. They get paid with our tax dollars, it's OK to insist they treat this seriously. You definitely want the incident documented, just in case.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 10:16 PM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ha ha! flippant has a good point.

Does your mom work someplace with sensitive information, like a bank or something?

It's pretty interesting she was specifically targeted.

She should ask her employer for advice since it happened at work. They should probably be the ones to call the police, certainly having the employer call will carry more weight.
posted by jbenben at 10:20 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

It happened at work? Tell her boss and get corporate security involved, pronto. They should have custody of this 'battery recharger' now, not mom; don't throw it away!
posted by Rash at 10:46 PM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: She doesn't work anywhere remotely sensitive or high profile (think: small regional restaurant chain you've never heard of if you live outside that region), and isn't involved with anything else where she'd have access to sensitive information of any kind. The only reason I could think anyone would have to want to compromise her phone or computer, bug her, or track her specifically is maybe stalking? She's pretty and friendly and I know she gets lots of male attention at work.

My partner suggested it could have been a circuitous precursor to being served legal papers, since she's now confirmed her name and place of employment to the stranger. But that would be really circuitous!

My next guess is that it's a scam of some sort, and that's mostly what I'm asking--what kind of scam could this be, and have you heard of anything similar happening elsewhere?

I agree that alerting an authority of some sort might be a wise course of action, but her employer doesn't have security and is unlikely to care, and calling the police isn't something she will consider. So I'm not looking for advice to do that.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:55 PM on August 16, 2013

Hard to see how it's a scam. Sounds like either a mentally ill person's attempt to hit on her (in which case the charger might be compromised somehow), or a something like the result of a dare or a practical joke (like maybe another family member of yours, who lives with your mom, has a friend who promised to give him a phone charger, and this was the friend's idea of how to deliver it).
posted by phoenixy at 12:05 AM on August 17, 2013

Upon your update, as a person that works with the public, I can't imagine not reporting this incident for safety reasons.

No one can tell you what the "scam" is without getting the device in question evaluated. Maybe take it to a computer tech support fix-it place and pay to have that done??

If this is malware, maybe the device causes text or phone fees that are paid to a third party - like how you can text a number and make a charity donation??

While this wouldn't cause outrageous fees on a pay-as-you-go phone, I don't see how this isn't a criminal matter for the police. In the case of malware, your mom isn't the only one targeted.

The FBI deals with cyber crime, and if you call their local office, they may already be tracking this scam, if it is one.


Again, I too work in the food industry. It happens all the time, like WEEKLY, that people I conversed with at length once or twice think they are on personal terms with me. Meanwhile, I don't recognize them at all! Too many faces to remember.

Is your mom really nice? People think I'm really nice at work. People are lonely and human connection feels good. Sometimes, like maybe this time with your mom, it goes wrong.

However, this guy KNOWS your mom does not recognize him and used the knowledge that he knows her, but she does not know him. This is troubling.


Your mom has to think about her safety, the safety of her fellow employees, and also random customers. What if this guy decides to return and escalate matters?

My last thought was a stalker, possibly some crazy customer she was kind to on the job.

Sorry to yell up there, yo. With all of the mass random violence happening these days...

Like I said, I work with the public, too.

I get that your mom doesn't want this documented, but I don't see another choice. This guy knows where your mom works, and her full name, and SUPER ODDLY, that she has a Verizon phone (although he seems to have guessed incorrectly that she's under contract!)

He probably saw the logo on her phone, which means he's been watching her.

You can call the police in her jurisdiction on her behalf (non-emergency number) and ask their advice.

Unlike in this question, state up front where she works and that she has direct contact with the public.

If it's a known scam, it will be good someone reported it. If it's a weirdo stalker, it will be good someone reported it.

As a professional that works with the public, I can't imagine not reporting this incident for safety reasons. Sorry.

Thank you for going the extra step and reporting this appropriately!

If your mom works for a chain restaurant, there are cameras. The FBI and/or the police need to recover those images of the man before it gets erased.

Start dialing!

Thank you.
posted by jbenben at 12:58 AM on August 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

PS - I've been served a summons more than once, and no, they don't confirm your ID and serve you later. They confirm your ID and serve you on the spot.
posted by jbenben at 12:59 AM on August 17, 2013

Googling the Power Bank 2800 Super Magicstick shows it is a weird-shaped charger. Like, a good charger to hide stuff in. What kind of stuff, who knows? Anthrax, a bomb, surveillance buggers, malware viruses, I don't know. Was it in a new packaging or did he just hand her that stick? That's completely bizarre.

Even if your mom isn't inclined to go to the police, as a concerned and caring child, you may want to call and speak to one of the detectives about it and just see what they think. Maybe they have heard of this and can tell you if it is some sort of scam. Could be a new scam that hasn't popped up on the internet or that's only been deployed in your area. Or maybe if he thinks it's suspicious, he will suggest filing a report. You could bring the stick in and they could analyze it, I'm sure.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:00 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know I'm going to sound like a broken record, but give your mom a copy of Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. It addresses the situation of strangers who approach another wanting to help, even though it strikes the other person as strange. Maybe he wanted to spread malware, or maybe he had other intentions. It's okay to not be so nice to strangers if one's spidey-sense is telling one that something seems off.
posted by SillyShepherd at 1:45 AM on August 17, 2013

Mod note: Just a note, now that OP has updated with this: "calling the police isn't something she will consider. So I'm not looking for advice to do that" -- please consider this particular angle covered. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:00 AM on August 17, 2013

She's pretty and friendly and I know she gets lots of male attention at work.

Does her phone actually have a battery issue? Is it possible that she had a conversation with a customer about her phone? If she's friendly and conversational with the patrons, it's possible that she mentioned it in passing and someone's aggressively "doing a favor".

I don't think that should negate the safety precautions - definitely let her employer know, and be vigilant for any follow-up contact by this person, or anyone else who mentions it.

Flippant's link was the first thing I thought of, even though it deals with iOS devices.
But a few second's googling "fake powerbanks" shows that there are often other things put in the casing, like sand or bolts to give it additional weight. So there's certainly room for something hidden.
posted by dubold at 2:00 AM on August 17, 2013

Did he give her a business card or phone number?
posted by KogeLiz at 2:09 AM on August 17, 2013

Have you checked with her service provider? If it is a scam they might want to know about it.

Also, if she works in a food service a lot of electronic transactions occur there. Sounds "James Bondish" but what they can do with remote data collectors is scary.
posted by moonlily at 3:57 AM on August 17, 2013

If she won't call the police, she should call Verizon directly about this.

Verizon will likely report it to their federal contacts if this is an on going scam of some kind. Because if it is scam, it's not happening to just her.
posted by zizzle at 4:54 AM on August 17, 2013 [16 favorites]

Yeah, the first step is to call Verizon and ask if they actually sent her a charger. The answer is almost certainly "no." Perhaps they will tell her how to proceed (e.g., bring the thing here and let us look at it).

In the meantime, I would wrap it in a towel, put it in a sealed plastic bag and put it somewhere out of the way. Ideally at the restaurant, but she's probably taken it home already.

(but of course my second call after Verizon would be to the police, so I'm obviously not your mom)

As for what you can do, as a second hand party to this, I think all you can really do is to urge your mom to take this more seriously.
posted by Naberius at 6:33 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Following on the legal papers angle... is your mom involved in some sort of dispute like a divorce or a contested will? Is it possible that someone wants a way to "tap" into her phone and listen to conversations in order to gather some sort of evidence?
posted by CathyG at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2013

Really the only way to shed any light on this is to analyze the charger and see if something is up with it.

Personally, I wouldn't just throw it away; it's far too interesting. (I wouldn't actually plug it into my phone or a computer I cared about, though.)

If she still has the charger there are probably lots of people around who would be very interested in getting their hands on it and tearing it down to see whether it's compromised, and if so in what fashion.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:33 AM on August 17, 2013

Response by poster: Mom texted this morning to say that a lady came back looking for the Powerstick, and she's going to give it to her (having not plugged it into anything). SO WEIRD. I guess we can consider this resolved, even though it's not even close in my mind.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:55 AM on August 17, 2013

Mom texted this morning to say that a lady came back looking for the Powerstick

I'm not a hardcore techy, but there is so much about this that is off that I would not hand it back.
Maybe contact the EFF and see what they recommend?

Something about this is not right. It might be legit, or not. But your mother needs smart, informed advice. I would not be handing it back, at the very least until I heard from Verizon.
posted by Mezentian at 10:06 AM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Naberius: "In the meantime, I would wrap it in a towel, put it in a sealed plastic bag and put it somewhere out of the way. Ideally at the restaurant, but she's probably taken it home already."

There is exactly zero chance that Verizon is personally delivering phone chargers to people at their workplaces. The malware angle to steal money seems most likely, but there may be something darker afoot. It's possible that this may be designed to find out where your Mom lives, which can be used for burgling her house while she's at work or even something worse. Tell her not to plug it into anything, don't take it home and wrap it in a several layers of aluminum foil, in case this scam involves some sort of GPS tracking fuckery. It's more likely that it would use the phone's GPS in this scenario, but I wouldn't count on that.

She should at least tell Verizon about this. They may already know all about this scam. I doubt that she is their first mark.

The fact that he knew her first and last names screams creepy-wrong to me. If she's not taking this seriously, she should be.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:14 AM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

rhiannonstone: "Mom texted this morning to say that a lady came back looking for the Powerstick, and she's going to give it to her (having not plugged it into anything). SO WEIRD. I guess we can consider this resolved, even though it's not even close in my mind."

It's possible that the guy was playing some weird practical joke. It's also possible that they have the information that they wanted and want their evidence back.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:17 AM on August 17, 2013

Mom might want to wipe her fingerprints off that thing if she decides to hand it over.
posted by nacho fries at 10:21 AM on August 17, 2013

Sounds to me like there's malware in the charger, and the person asking for the charger back was attempting to retrieve the information the malware would have stolen/stole.
posted by Snuffman at 12:23 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like it's an odd kind of dead letter drop using your mom as a unsuspecting courier.

The thing probably has meth in it.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:26 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

On second look, that small? Looks like a malware delivery scheme of some kind. Spear fishing perhaps?
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:37 PM on August 17, 2013

I really don't think your mom should hand this device over to this new strange lady who wants it back. Not without calling Verizon directly to ask WTF is going on. I'm about 100000% sure that Verizon is in no way involved with this, and I can't speak to what sort of scam or weird joke these people are running on your mom, but I'm pretty sure the company wouldn't exactly be stoked about people using their name and reputation to scam unsuspecting customers.

If this lady who wants the device back does come to your mom's work to get it, your mom should ask to see two forms of ID -- her government ID (driver's license, whatever) and her company ID, which should have her full name, color photo, and possibly her employee ID number. She should tell the lady that she wants to contact Verizon to confirm this lady's ID before she hands off the device, "for security reasons". A legitimate Verizon employee would agree to this and would have no problem providing identifying information. I'm betting this lady will balk at that, get rude and possibly grabby, et cetera, so your mom should not go anywhere alone with this person and should try to have a coworker there with her to act as witness/backup.

Basically, nothing about this sounds okay at all, and it doesn't sound like your mom is taking it very seriously, but she should be.
posted by palomar at 2:28 PM on August 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

some random stranger knowing your mom's full name is concerning. if she or you won't call the police then do call verizon. my thought is it is some sort of identity theft scheme or GPS tracking so rob your mom's house. i really wouldn't just ignore this even if only for the reason that some other person is likely to get scammed being not smart enough to not plug this thing into their phone.
posted by wildflower at 4:18 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

just wanted to add that the fact that they want the powerstick back means they know your mom didn't plug it into her phone. they would know this because it is rigged up to steal her info and since your mom isn't playing along they will try some other unfortunate person.
posted by wildflower at 4:30 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can't figure out the angle here, but the devices of that nature I've seen are perfectly legitimate. (I think they're all made in one factory with slightly different cases and a different logo)

Typically one end unscrews and you can pull the battery and the control board out of it and get a look at it. It will likely be obvious if someone has messed with the innards. There's not exactly a lot of extra room to fit unrelated circuits.
posted by wierdo at 4:51 PM on August 17, 2013

Yea, the fact that a different person wants it back seems really suspicious. I wouldn't give it back without some more investigation into what's going on.
posted by gemmy at 6:03 PM on August 17, 2013

The next person these scammers will hit is someone like your mom, who doesn't understand technology today.

Please report this before the surveillance camera images at the restaurant are deleted.
posted by jbenben at 12:36 AM on August 18, 2013

It is far more likely that this is some weird mix up than it is some cyber-conspiracy to infiltrate the digital lives of restaurant workers. She should agree to return the device, but firmly insist on an explanation of what happened in the first place before she does.

Some of you folks are crazy paranoid.
posted by LarryC at 1:10 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Possible less-weird scenario:

Your mother has a coworker whom I shall call Sally. Sally has had a lot of problems with her charger. Sally is a very strong-minded lady! She keeps the manager of the local Verizon store on speed dial so she can vent her frustrations regarding her phone every time she gets off work. There's some

The manager is sick and tired of Sally. She offers her a new charger but Sally isn't about to leave work on her lunch hour for something that is Verizon's fault. The manager gets J Random Dude to bring Sally a new charger at work. J Random Dude turns up, describes Sally based on what the manager told him, and someone at your mother's job says "Oh, that's Rhiannonstone's mother. She's over there." He brings your mother the charger "("Hi, Rhiannonstones mother!") and your mother does not know what's going on but takes it anyway. Sally rings Verizon to complain about the charger not having arrived, gets told that J Random Dude delivered it to someone matching this description, and Sally heads off to recover her charger.

posted by Joe in Australia at 5:17 AM on August 18, 2013

I think if this was Verizon conducting legitimate business, they'd ask the customer for an alternate way of contacting said customer. I don't think the responses are from excessive paranoia. The situation would give me the willies, too.
posted by SillyShepherd at 7:04 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

call Verizon and ask if they actually sent her a charger because you never know. Also, if there's such a scam, Verizon is likely to have heard of it.

Suggest to your Mom that if anybody, ever, shows up unexpectedly, she should ask for their photo ID. And if somebody shows up to collect this, she should ask for their Verizon photo ID, and if they don't have it, they have to leave. True at work, extra true at home. Anybody from a reputable company has a photo ID. And you can call the company at a publically-posted number to verify it.

Maybe a customer really did get a hand-delivered charger. unlikely. Maybe somebody entered her customer number in error, and the charger should have gone to somebody whose customer number is a digit off from your Mom's. It's a really weird scenario, but it's hard to see scam potential. Sounds like your Mom has a non-smart phone.

Please update the thread if it gets resolved in some way; it's interesting.
posted by theora55 at 11:46 AM on August 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Some of you folks are crazy paranoid.

I'm just acting that way because this is so far off the end of the "weird" scale that I feel a commensurately extreme response is called for.
posted by Naberius at 6:33 PM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I still say to call the cops, tell them about it and at least see what they say. This may be something they have heard of and can tell you exactly what it is.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:25 PM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, this question is driving me crazy. WHY is calling the police not an option? Why did you ask this question if you and/or your mom will not listen to the posters here?

This is my mom 100%. She would totally call me up about something like this, and I could give her 100 reasons to report it to Verizon or the police, and she'd be like, "eh, whatever. Nah." She'd ask me for advice and then totally disregard it.

If it were me, I'd call Verizon myself and report it as if it happened to me, just to see what they say. Based on their reaction or advice, I'd report that back to your mom.
posted by peep at 8:49 AM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

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