A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

BBB Trends: With voice-activated devices, be careful what you seek, especially when you speak

By Sandra Guile
Better Business Bureau

It seems so easy to do: Tell Alexa to play your favorite song. Ask Siri about the weather. Use Google Assistant to turn down the air conditioner or dim the lights. But think twice before asking your smart device to look up a phone number, because it may accidentally point you to a scam. 

Let’s say you’re looking for the phone number of a plumbing company and ask the smart device — such as Google Home, Siri or Alexa — to find and dial the plumbing company for you. Once the call is connected, you think you’re talking to someone from the business you requested. All of a sudden, the conversation takes a weird turn. The representative begins to insist on a wire transfer or prepaid debit card as a form of payment before scheduling an appointment or demand remote access to your computer or attempt to direct you to log in to an unfamiliar website.

By this time, you’ve figured out this “representative” isn’t from the company at all. Scammers are creating fake customer service numbers and bumping them to the top of search results, often by paying for ads. If you were to use a laptop or desktop computer, typically you would scroll past the top few ads to the listing of plumbers.

When Siri, Alexa or another device does a voice search, the algorithm works differently, and accidentally picks a scam number because it doesn’t know the difference between a spoofed ad and a legitimate one.

One recent victim told Scamtracker.org that she once used a voice search to find and call customer service for a major airline. She wanted to change her seat on an upcoming flight and was almost tricked into paying $400 in prepaid gift cards by the alleged agent insisting the airline was running a special promotion. In another report, a consumer used Siri to call what he thought was the support number for his printer. Instead, he found himself in a tech support scam.

Protect yourself from becoming a victim by finding the contact information for businesses or service providers using an electronic device instead of a voice-activated smart device. The information isn’t as reliable. Confirm the street address on a bill that you’ve received from the company or in a confirmation email. Should you come across what appears to be a fake ad, report it to scamtracker.org

Beware of fake ads. Scammers have been known to create ads with fake customer service numbers and have done so for quite some time. Using voice search to find a number can make it harder to tell a phony listing from the real one. Instead, get information from the official company website or official correspondence.

Make payments with a credit card. It’s easier to dispute a credit card payment. Paying by wire transfer or prepaid debit card is like using cash. There is almost nothing you can do to get the money back. More importantly, refrain from giving out too much information when using a voice-activated device. It’s hard to know who’s listening and where that information will end up.

Sandra Guile is the Public Relations Specialist for BBB. She promotes BBB’s message of marketplace ethics through public speaking engagements, presentations, media relations, press releases, web content, and other written materials. Your BBB is located at 1 East 4th Street Suite 600 Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 – to reach the office, call 513-421-3015.

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