'It does absolutely pay to complain': Feds help some Minnesota phone scam victims collect

A woman wearing a magenta sweater stands in front of a wall.
Sandy Grossman received a payment from the FTC after the agency collected money from a scammer who ripped off her and other consumers. She's photographed at her home in Edina on Wednesday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Sandy Grossman thought she was savvy about avoiding scams, having prevented about a dozen attempts by crooks to steal her identity or tap her accounts.

But then a few years ago, she ran into a cyber crook who told her there was a problem with her computer, and she said it seemed like he was right.

“I could not do anything on my computer. I couldn't close it out,” said Grossman, who lives in Edina. “So the more they're talking, I'm starting to believe them. I always thought I was so sharp about this. But they got me.”

The thief said he could fix and protect Grossman's computer for a year for $300. She paid up but quickly suspected — and confirmed — she'd been ripped off.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Fortunately, Grossman’s story has a happy ending. She complained about the scam to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that handles consumer fraud issues. About a year later, she said, a check arrived in the mail.

“It does absolutely pay to complain,” said Todd Kossow, director of the FTC's Midwest office.

The FTC has mailed about $17 million in checks to 78,000 Minnesotans since July 2018. About half the payments involved a company called AMG Services, which ran a payday lending scheme.

Nationwide, FTC refunds since July 2018 approach $1 billion. The payments come from funds the FTC recovered from scammers and other rip-off artists. And the FTC estimates other enforcement actions have resulted in billions of dollars more in refunds delivered directly to consumers by companies like Volkswagen and LifeLock that were forced to set up their own refund programs.

“It's easy to complain to the FTC,” Kossow said, adding that people can call 1-877-FTC-HELP or file a complaint on the agency’s website.

The complaints, which also come from law enforcement agencies and private partners, end up in a database. The database includes 3.2 million reports from 2019, when consumers claimed more than $1.9 billion in fraud losses.

The FTC receives a lot of complaints about unwanted phone calls. Last year, Minnesotans filed 77,000 gripes about phone scammers, robocalls and telemarketers breaking do-not-call rules. Kossow said consumers should still get on the agency's do-not-call registry.

“We know that that is not going to stop all telemarketing calls because the people who are still calling, you know, are just basically criminals and they're not going to follow the law,” he said. “But by registering your number, you do stop calls from legitimate marketers.”

Kossow said the FTC sets its enforcement priorities based on the complaints it receives. And the agency wants complaints even when people recognize a call as a scam.

“The FTC wants to hear about that sort of call or encounter as much as if you'd actually lost money,” he said.

Kossow also advises people to look into call-blocking technology. Some carriers provide it free of charge, flagging or blocking likely scam calls. One that the FTC recommends is called Nomorobo, which won a challenge the FTC issued to the call-blocking technology industry.

Meanwhile, Congress recently passed a telemarketing bill that requires carriers to confirm that a call is actually coming from the number displayed on caller ID.

A phone scammer can occasionally end up in jail, such as when the intended victim is a former government official. William Webster, who led both the FBI and CIA, was told he had to pay $50,000 to collect a $72 million sweepstakes prize. Eventually, the scammer threatened to burn down Webster's home and kill him and his wife if they did not pay up. The crook was caught and last year received a nearly six-year prison sentence.

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office also encourages people to call with complaints. People often end up getting some money back after the office takes legal action against companies accused of bilking citizens.

Last year, Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office saved or returned $5.1 million to Minnesota consumers and businesses through mediating complaints. The attorney general’s office won millions of dollars more in compensation for consumers through lawsuits, he said.

“Complaints often drive our investigations. They drive the lawsuits that we file, which might mean you get restitution, debt relief, changing company policy,” he said.

The attorney general's office takes complaints by phone, online and by snail mail.

Ellison said complaints don't have to be limited to products or services.

"It could also be something like payday lending. It could be tenant [issues], insurance premiums, a wide number of things. But if we don't know about it, it's extremely hard to do anything about it,” he said.