Help with potential scam
April 17, 2014 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Sketchy, potentially scammy situation with my brother traveling in Guatemala and requesting my phone info to transfer money over Paypal. What to do?

My brother just emailed from Guatemala, where he's traveling, saying his iPhone was stolen and his debit card is lost. He said that he borrowed money from someone and needs to Paypal them the money back, but needs to confirm his account. He asked if he could use my phone to text the Paypal confirmation to. My scam radar went up, so I asked him if he knew my dog's name, which he correctly provided. He also added personal information that only he would know. I agreed to give him my cell phone number, but then he also wanted the address on my cell phone bills. This whole situation feels very strange and I don't feel comfortable with it. He just emailed my mom with the same request (I couldn't respond for an hour or so, so presumably he turned to other family members). Am I right to be concerned about a scam? I'm also worried about the worst case scenario, that Guatemalan thieves have him at gunpoint somewhere, and that I can't know whether that's the case.
posted by quiet coyote to Law & Government (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're right to suspect a scam. Can you get a phone number from him that you could call to actually talk to him?
posted by dcjd at 6:14 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you get him to call you and speak to him on the phone? Or call him?
posted by Jairus at 6:14 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is the personal info only he would know available on facebook, if someone had gotten access to his profile? Your dog's name might be very easy to look up. Do you have any external way to contact your brother, e.g. is he with an exchange program, travelling with friends, would he have registered with an embassy?
posted by nat at 6:14 PM on April 17, 2014

Presumably he doesn't want to make an international call on someone else's phone but I can ask. I'll try calling his phone too.

I'm not on FB and it was very personal- kind of a running joke between us that is definitely not publically available. He's doing some sort of medical volunteering program. My parents have emergency info- I'll ask them.
posted by quiet coyote at 6:17 PM on April 17, 2014

Can you guys skype?
posted by Sara C. at 6:17 PM on April 17, 2014

If he's willing to borrow enough money from someone that you need to paypal it, a five minute phone call shouldn't be that big of a deal.
posted by Jairus at 6:19 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is indeed a chance this is a scam. Do not do anything until you actually talk to him on a phone and verify it is actually him making these requests. He should be able to get to some place in Guatemala where you or your parents can call him and verify that this is actually him making these requests.

(My father came very close to wiring money to a scammer who had provided a lot of personal info. to verify identity that you would have thought he would not have been able to get so easily. My sister was suspicious enough to put a stop to things and put a call in to find out whether the family member who was supposedly in trouble was really in trouble. He was not.)
posted by gudrun at 6:26 PM on April 17, 2014

He was responding actively to our emails but now no response for a half hour. I suggested everything you mentioned above to him. My mom says he left his group to visit Machu Pichu
posted by quiet coyote at 6:27 PM on April 17, 2014

Contact his group. You know they're on the level, so arrange things through them.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Machu Picchu? Are you sure? Because that's not even on the same continent as Guatemala.

I bring this up because I once had my email hacked in a very similar way (email sent to all my contacts saying I was traveling and needed money in an emergency situation), except the email said I was in Scotland. Coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Peru at the time.

A lot of friends who knew I was off traveling somewhere didn't put two and two together and came very close to falling for the scam.

You need to find out very specifically where your brother was actually planning on traveling to, and very specifically whether he literally told your mother he was traveling to Machu Picchu for real. Because that does not add up.
posted by Sara C. at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

If someone hacked his email, would they have known of the running joke?
posted by Slinga at 6:38 PM on April 17, 2014

He was supposed to fly to Machu Picchu from Guatemala today (although his email said the phone was stolen in Guatemala). He posted this on fb, which I can't confirm because I don't have it. He is no longer with his group so we can't work through them. Also, he is not asking for money (yet, at least)- he's asking for my billing address for my phone bill and my phone number. We don't email much, so I don't think it could have been in there.
posted by quiet coyote at 6:42 PM on April 17, 2014

I haven't used PayPal much, but I don't think he would need a mobile number to engage with it - you can do it all through email. You do need to link it to either a bank account or a credit card if you've never set it up before.

There is a "PayPal mobile" function where you can send PayPal queries and instructions via SMS. But there is no reason to set it up if he has email and internet access. It's a tool for dumbphones.
posted by amaire at 6:45 PM on April 17, 2014

Can you do a video hangout right within in Google to see him? Just hit the little video icon next to his name in the Gchat box.

Between your phone number, your address, and one or two other pieces of info (DOB, SSN), someone can probably get access to your online banking accounts. That's the standard personal verification stuff they ask when you call in to, say, reset your Citibank Online password.

And wouldn't he already KNOW your mom's cell phone number and mailing address??
posted by amaire at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Phone number + billing address makes me wonder if someone is trying to get the necessary information to get around a two-factor authentication security scheme, personally.
posted by KathrynT at 6:49 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Check your phone co. account, and make sure there are no weird charges, maybe contact them to put an alert on your account. Detach any credit card and bank info from paypal, if you can. Tell him you're worried, that it seems like his accounts are being scammed, and you need to hear from him right away.
posted by theora55 at 6:49 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

In most of the world, cell phone calls are paid by the caller, not the recipient; the US is unusual in this regard. So I would ask him to send you a phone number (land line or mobile) where you could call him. Use Skype, which has pretty good rates for calling to mobile phones overseas, and ask what's up. You could also recommend that he contact the US consular services in Peru; if he has been the victim of a crime, they will want to know and can provide advice. You might want to contact them yourself.

I hope he's OK and that this is a scam.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:55 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

He lost his iPhone and debit card, but still had the documentation to get on an international flight? That seems...odd.
posted by catalytics at 6:55 PM on April 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Let other family and friends know. Scammers like this often go after several of a person's contacts.
posted by quince at 7:03 PM on April 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ask him to email a pic of himself. Someone near him has a phone that can do this.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:08 PM on April 17, 2014

He just emailed saying he's fine and he'll Viber later. No more mention of Paypal. I'll update if I hear from him. I feel a little reassured but not totally.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:11 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd still recommend getting in touch with his friends; he may not have actually left the group, if this person was a scammer.
posted by nat at 7:14 PM on April 17, 2014

Just Skyped with him. He's fine (aside from the stolen phone/card, which he already reported to his bank and had closed down). Thanks guys.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:53 PM on April 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Good to hear. Slap him in the head when you see him next.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:57 PM on April 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

What was his explanation of needing all of this info?
posted by vignettist at 7:48 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm with vignettist - this question was fascinating and puzzling and I'd love to hear an update about what really happened.
posted by medusa at 9:12 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apparently, Paypal needs a billing address when you're changing the number you use for two-factor authentication. I pledge to personally slap him upside the head on behalf of Mefites everywhere when I see him next.
posted by quiet coyote at 11:33 AM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

You know, I've heard of this scam but not thought too much about it. Now, after thinking about this question today and your brother's situation, I've decided to leave a code word with family the next time I travel outside the country. The idea being that with the code word they'll know such a request is really from me in case I get into a situation like your brother got into, and that it's not a scam.

(Hope everything got worked out for him).
posted by vignettist at 11:09 PM on April 18, 2014

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