Small Business Scammers Pretend to Be Deaf

Con artists have a diverse bag of tricks for defrauding small businesses, including impersonating electric companies and climbing onto convenience-store rooftops. In Wisconsin, thieves recently dusted off an old ruse for duping small merchants: They’re pretending to be deaf.

The so-called relay-operator scam, which relies on a telephone service for the hearing-impaired, has been around for at least a decade. At its most basic, a crook uses a stolen credit card to pay for a large order, then cancels the order, hoping to receive a refund before the original credit card transaction has settled.

Kate Reiser, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says that reports of the scam have increased recently, and Green Bay (Wis.) television news program Target 2 reports on a recent attempt that started with one scammer’s request to prepay for 50 prime-rib dinners. In another variation, Reiser says crooks pay for a large catering order with a stolen credit card and ask the restaurant to use a third-party delivery service controlled by the thieves. The scammers use a stolen card to pay the restaurant for delivery, the restaurant wires that money to the delivery service. The thieves pocket that money and cancel the credit card payment, leaving the restaurant to take the loss.

A mildly cautious business owner has a fair chance of avoiding the fraudsters. That’s where the second part of the scheme comes in. To distract business owners from their malicious intent, the thieves place orders by using services that let the hearing-impaired type messages to telephone operators, who relay the typed message to the party on the other end of the call.

The idea is to get the business owner to grant requests they usually wouldn’t, either because they’re distracted by the novelty of conversing via a telephone-relay service, or because they don’t want to say no to a deaf person. It’s enough of a problem that the National Association of the Deaf told Target 2 that “these scams threaten the legitimacy of our own calls and lead to businesses sometimes refusing to accept relay calls altogether.”

They also remind merchants to be wary of both high-tech hackers and a cruder class of criminal.

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