Every time there are reports of a new scam, it’s easy to think, “This is now rock-bottom. Scammers have hit the lowest point possible.” Whether it’s scams that target the elderly, the disabled, veterans, or any other group that should be seemingly “off-limits” when it comes to intentionally ripping them off or causing them harm, it’s tempting to think that even criminals can’t be this awful.

But the whole reason scams work is because of this vulnerability of the victims. A new scam—the latest “lowest of the low”—involves spoofing a known government phone number and using that tactic to engage in phishing attempts against immigrants. Callers alter their phone numbers to appear on caller ID as though they’re with the US Immigration Office, and then tell the victim that his paperwork is somehow flawed. By threatening the individual with criminal or legal consequences, they defraud immigrants by collecting fees under the guise of avoiding the penalties.

There are a number of reasons that this and other spoofing/phishing scams work. First, the number appears legitimate and the caller sounds knowledgeable. In this case and in many others, the caller may even have access to specific information about you, such as your address or a case number; this information can be obtained through external data breaches or “inside job” intentional breaches. Also, the scammers know that their victims’ fears may prompt them to pay up, whether it’s threats of deportation, threats of turning off an elderly homeowners heat in December, or any other form of intimidation.

Finally, the criminals are counting on one universal characteristic of scams, and that’s the naivety of their victims when it comes to how the process operates. The plan is to convince someone that there’s a little known regulation or requirement that they failed to adhere to. This allows the scammer to coerce the victim into making a payment over the phone, or by ordering them to submit a payment by wire transfer or prepaid credit card within a certain time deadline; this deadline will purposely not leave them much time to investigate the issue, instead forcing them to hurry in order to send the payment without checking out the facts first.

There is one important truth that can stop this kind of fraud in its tracks: no legitimate agency or business will ever demand an instant payment over the phone. If you are ever told that the payment can only be made by instant wire transfer, then that is also a sure sign that something isn’t right. Never submit a payment to someone who calls you out of the blue; it’s absolutely vital that you stop, think it through, and verify the charges by using a known contact number (not the phone number the caller provides) before sending money to anyone.

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.