Robocalls Flooding Your Cellphone? Here’s How to Stop Them

Mr. Quilici said the registry is helpful but should not be seen as a panacea.

“If I’m sitting in India dialing a million numbers, what are the odds I’m even going to be fined for violating the Do Not Call Registry?” he asked. “It’s probably near zero.”

Turn to technology

Download apps such as Truecaller, RoboKiller, Mr. Number, Nomorobo and Hiya, which will block the calls. YouMail will stop your phone from ringing with calls from suspected robocallers and deliver a message that your number is out of service.

Mr. Quilici said phone companies, such as T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, also have tools to combat robocalls. They work by blocking calls from numbers known to be problematic.

Turn the tables

And then there is the Jolly Roger Telephone Company, which turns the tables on telemarketers. This program allows a customer to put the phone on mute and patch telemarketing calls to a robot, which understands speech patterns and inflections and works to keep the caller engaged.

Subscribers can choose robot personalities, such as Whiskey Jack, who is frequently distracted by a game he is watching on television, or Salty Sally, a frazzled mother.

The robots string the callers along with vocal fillers like “Uh-huh” and “O.K., O.K.” After several minutes, some will ask the callers to repeat their sales pitch from the beginning, prompting the telemarketers to have angry meltdowns, according to sample recordings posted on the company’s website.

Watch what you say

One recent scheme involves getting consumers to say “yes” and later using a recording of the response to allow unauthorized charges on the person’s credit card account, the F.C.C. warned in March.

When the caller asks, “Can you hear me?” and the consumer answers “yes,” the caller can gain a voice signature that can later be used to authorize fraudulent charges by telephone.

Best to answer with “I can hear you,” said Ryan Kalember, senior vice president of cybersecurity strategy at Proofpoint, a cybersecurity company in Sunnyvale, Calif.

What’s ahead

The callers are evolving, Mr. Kalember said. Some have numbers that appear to be from your area code (they result in higher response rates); others employ “imitation of life” software in which the robocall sounds like a live person, complete with coughing, laughing and background noise. This artificial intelligence can be programmed to interact in real time with a consumer.

A recording on the Consumers Union website features an exchange in which a man tries to confirm he is talking to a live person. As the call progresses, the consumer presses for confirmation.

“Will you tell me you’re not a robot? Just say, ‘I’m not a robot’ please,” he says, which is met with various programmed replies of “I am a real person” and “There is a live person here.”

Why do robocalls proliferate?

Mr. Quilici compared robocalling to spam emails: It is all about volume. Companies can use software to make millions of calls at very little expense. They need only a few victims to fall prey to their schemes to more than cover their costs.

“When you hear these guys do these scam pitches, they’re pretty amazing,” he said.

The next development will be integrated efforts combining email, phone calls and social media to scheme money from consumers, Mr. Kalember said, adding that the level of innovation “is really quite astounding.”

“Technology is enabling at a scale we haven’t seen before,” he said.


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Zelle, the Banks’ Answer to Venmo, Proves Vulnerable to Fraud

The personal payment platform Zelle is flourishing. But so are fraudsters, who are exploiting weaknesses in the banks’ security.

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Facebook Removes Popular Black Lives Matter Page for Being a Fake

The page, which had 700,000 followers, was run by a white man in Australia and raised at least $100,000, according to a CNN report.

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Op-Ed Columnist: Either a Conspirator or a Sucker


President Trump at the White House on Friday. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Robert Mueller, the special counsel, first indicted Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the former chairman and deputy chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, last October on charges including money laundering and conspiracy against the United States. At the time, the White House and its apologists argued that these alleged crimes pre-dated the campaign, and were thus unrelated to any putative election-related conspiracies with Russia. Tweeted Trump, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

This wasn’t true then — multiple charges referred to crimes that were said to continue at least through 2016. But Mueller’s new indictments, released last week, render Trump’s defense even more ridiculous. They provide detailed evidence that Manafort and Gates’s alleged financial crimes continued while they were running Trump’s campaign. And despite the White House’s insistence otherwise, the felonies that Manafort is accused of, and the two that Gates pleaded guilty to on Friday, bear directly on the question of Russian collusion.

It’s certainly possible that Trump himself didn’t personally connive with Russia for campaign help. Perhaps, through a combination of carelessness and miserliness, he unwittingly allowed his campaign to be infiltrated at the highest levels by both alleged and admitted criminals with Russian ties. Such a scenario, however, would not be exculpatory.

Thanks to Mueller’s indictments and some revelatory journalism, we have a decent picture of the desperate straits Manafort was in when he joined Team Trump. In the charges unsealed last week, Mueller’s team described a two-part criminal scheme by Manafort and Gates. First, they laundered tens of millions of dollars while working for Viktor Yanukovych, then the Kremlin-aligned president of Ukraine, and his political allies.

In 2014, Yanukovych fled into exile in Russia, and according to Mueller’s indictment, Manafort and Gates’s “Ukraine income dwindled.” That’s when the second part of their scheme began. From 2015 to 2017, in what looks like a frantic scramble for cash, the indictment says, they “fraudulently secured more than $20 million” in bank loans by lying about their finances.

We don’t know why they needed all this money. But we do know that in 2014, lawyers for the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska filed a petition in the Cayman Islands claiming that Manafort and Gates couldn’t account for almost $19 million that a company controlled by Deripaska had given them to invest. Deripaska, who is reportedly very close to President Vladimir Putin, has been denied entry to the United States because of his suspected ties to Russian organized crime. One would not, presumably, want to owe him a debt that could not be paid.

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Investigators Eye Possible $100 Million Construction Fraud

That kind of corruption is a major contributor to the high cost of doing business in New York, experts said. “Years ago, New York’s construction industry was plagued by the mob,” which drove up costs, said Rod Leith, a longtime investigator specializing in the construction industry and a former assistant inspector general at the School Construction Authority. “Today, a handful of private contractors have made it a way of business to cheat, bribe and corrupt a whole sector known as the interiors industry.”

The investigation is doubly embarrassing for Bloomberg, the world’s largest financial information company whose founder, Michael R. Bloomberg, was a three-term mayor of New York, and a famous stickler for data.

“We are grateful that the appropriate law enforcement authorities brought this to our attention,” said Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Bloomberg, “and we have worked closely with them on the investigation.”

Bloomberg and Turner contend that an isolated group of rogue employees at each company evaded corporate procedures and engaged in a scheme to pad bills and enrich themselves. Bloomberg said it overpaid by only $1 million, according to one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Thomas Curran, a lawyer for Turner, said there was “a systemic effort to escape detection by avoiding Turner’s compliance program.”

But industry executives briefed on the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they don’t want to run afoul of the district attorney’s office, said the raids are part of a broader investigation into other contractors and potential victims that could involve fraud totaling $100 million.

At least eight people have been fired from the companies involved, the companies said, but it appears that no one has been arrested so far. Investigators are continuing to scour the financial records of various executives and interview subcontractors concerning work for Turner, Bloomberg and others.

Nearly four years ago in a similar case, Bloomberg’s former general contractor, Structure Tone, pleaded guilty to corruption charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and agreed to forfeit $55 million for defrauding Bloomberg, prominent financial institutions, law firms and ad agencies.

Structure Tone admitted that it had electrical, plumbing, drywall and other contractors falsely inflate their bills, adding millions of dollars to the cost of the work. For Structure Tone, the guilty plea was a reprise of a prior investigation, in 1998, when the company pleaded guilty to felony charges for its role in a $2 billion bid-rigging and bribery scheme.

As a result, Bloomberg replaced Structure Tone with Turner.

But investigations and convictions appear to remain a perennial feature of the industry: In 2015, the Manhattan district attorney’s office successfully prosecuted John Cassisi, the former director of global construction for Citibank’s Citi Realty Services, for operating a pay-to-play scheme in which he received $500,000 in cash and gifts from contractors seeking work. Four other titans of the interior construction industry — Plaza Construction, Tishman Construction, Granite Construction and Hunter Roberts Construction Group — paid a combined $92 million in restitution and penalties in recent years for overbilling clients in connection with fraud charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn.

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the Bloomberg-Turner case and people familiar with the investigation were reluctant to discuss it for fear of being drawn into the scandal, or because they have been advised not to discuss it. But a picture of the case emerged through interviews with executives at Turner and Bloomberg, people briefed by the district attorney’s office, and lawyers representing people who have been fired.

Bloomberg employees were stunned on Oct. 12 when the State Police and investigators arrived at their headquarters at 731 Lexington Avenue, waving search warrants for records and computers used by Anthony Guzzone, the global head of construction for Bloomberg, and another executive. The two men were immediately suspended and a short time later fired, along with an operations manager at Bloomberg.

Investigators also searched their houses.

Mr. Guzzone’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said his client “categorically denies any wrongdoing.” The other two executives either did not return requests for comment or could not be reached.

At roughly the same time, investigators also went to Turner’s offices at 375 Hudson Street with search warrants and grand jury subpoenas for two executives involved in interior construction, one of whom had been a project superintendent on Bloomberg jobs.

Their homes were also searched.

Though both Bloomberg and Turner are companies with global reach, the investigation also involved a modest Queens company called Jonathan Metal & Glass, which fabricates and installs architectural metal walls and glass for office interiors, according to two people briefed on the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were asked by the authorities not to discuss it.

Investigators suspected that company employees had been paying kickbacks or providing services to the executives at Bloomberg and Turner in return for work. At the same time, the executives at Bloomberg and Turner would inflate the cost of the contracts for the work.

In an Oct. 26, 2017, letter to customers and vendors, Wilfred Smith, the president of the company, announced that he had terminated three employees, without giving a reason.

The three employees who were fired declined to comment, as did Mr. Smith.

Mr. Curran, the lawyer for Turner Construction, said that the company supplies cellphones, tablets and laptops to its employees to use in the bidding process and to track work. Records for jobs are supposed to be kept at Turner’s offices, as part of the company’s compliance requirements. But in this case, he said, they did not use the Turner-issued devices and job records were kept at Bloomberg work sites.

The district attorney’s investigation parallels a lawsuit, which was filed nearly a year ago by another subcontractor, Nastasi & Associates, against Bloomberg LP, Mr. Guzzone and other executives, seeking $15 million in damages. The suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Nassau County, claims that they engaged in a “conspiracy” to award work to an electrical subcontractor called Litespeed to “achieve higher profit margins for themselves, which they could not obtain by awarding bids and contracts to the lowest bidder; and embezzle upwards of $100,000,000 from Bloomberg.”

Nastasi, a dry wall contractor, contends that the defendants terminated a long-term relationship with Bloomberg in 2015 in favor of another contractor, Eurotech Construction.

In addition, the Nastasi suit states that Bloomberg and Turner employees altered the Nastasi bid — raising it by $100,000 — for a Bloomberg work contract at 120 Park Avenue to prevent Nastasi from being selected as the low bidder.

Bloomberg lawyers, who also represented Mr. Guzzone and other executives, and Eurotech lawyers sought, unsuccessfully so far, to have the case dismissed, arguing that Nastasi was fired after it failed to pay benefits for union carpenters, a claim that Nastasi denied.

For its part, Turner says that Nastasi defaulted on three separate, non-Bloomberg jobs.

Last month, investigators also raided the offices of Litespeed Electric in New York and New Jersey.

Linda Fleming, the president of Litespeed, did not return phone calls requesting comment. Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer for Robert Fleming, her husband and an executive at Litespeed, said his client denied any wrongdoing.

Well before the investigation gathered steam last fall, Bloomberg received a warning that something was amiss. Nastasi & Associates contacted Bloomberg’s global head of real estate in 2016, 18 months before investigators arrived at Bloomberg headquarters, to warn the company about what it said were illegal actions taken by Mr. Guzzone and the other executives.

Nastasi never heard back.

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Your Money Adviser: A New Tax Scam, and Tips on How to Deal With It

A big deposit from the I.R.S. unexpectedly shows up in your bank account. What should you do? First off, don’t spend it. You may be a victim of identity fraud.

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Accusations of Fraud at Wells Fargo Spread to Sham Insurance Policies

Ms. Broderick and two of her colleagues, Darron Smith and Thomas Schreck, filed a wrongful termination suit against Prudential on Tuesday. They say they were fired in November for trying to escalate attention internally to their discoveries about conduct at Wells Fargo. Prudential said on Friday that the three were fired for “appropriate and legitimate reasons” that had nothing to do with Wells Fargo.


Three managers in Prudential’s corporate investigation division found signs that Wells Fargo had signed up customers for insurance without the customers’ knowledge.

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A Prudential spokesman, Scot Hoffman, says the company continues to investigate the policies sold through Wells Fargo. Once it is finished, Prudential anticipates “reviewing this matter with our regulators,” he said.

Since bankers are not licensed to sell insurance, Wells Fargo employees were encouraged, without discussing specific terms, to steer customers to either a self-service kiosk in bank branches or a website on which they could sign up for MyTerm, a policy that does not require applicants to take a medical exam. Bankers who sold the product got credit toward their steep quarterly sales quotas.

Some Wells Fargo bankers appear to have signed people up for MyTerm without telling them, according to the three whistle-blowers from Prudential. In some cases, bankers opened MyTerm policies, closed them after a month or two and then promptly reopened them to bolster their sales numbers, the evidence in the lawsuit suggests.

Wells Fargo said in a statement on Friday that it was investigating any alleged improprieties that were brought to its attention.

“As we have consistently reinforced, if we identify any instances where a customer received a product they didn’t ask for, we will make it right,” said Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.

The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey state court, provides elaborate details of how the same issues that have disgraced Wells Fargo — which forced the bank to pay $185 million in fines, to account for its actions in Congress, to replace its chief executive and to apologize profusely to customers — are now showing up at Prudential in the accounts that Wells Fargo handled.


“This definitely was the same kind of conduct that Wells was committing, but through Prudential,” said Julie Han Broderick, a former co-head of Prudential’s corporate investigations division and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Under intense pressure to meet sales goals, which have since been eliminated, thousands of Wells Fargo’s workers used customers’ personal information to create sham accounts in the customers’ names; some incurred fees on those unwanted accounts, which included checking accounts and credit cards. More than 5,000 employees have been fired, and an internal investigation is underway.

The three people who filed the wrongful termination suit were part of an investigations unit at Prudential that was asked to comb for irregularities in the 15,000 MyTerm accounts that were sold through Wells Fargo.

Those in the unit found that some customers who signed up for MyTerm listed addresses like “Wells Fargo Drive” on their applications, according to the complaint. Some of the policy applications listed suspicious email addresses for customers, and the name listed on a policy sometimes did not match the name in the customer’s email address — “for example, where the MyTerm policy holder was Jason Smith, the email address might be for,” the complaint said.

Additionally, the lawsuit said, “Cellphone numbers were listed as emails, such as, which was very similar to how fraudulent bank accounts were opened at Wells Fargo Bank.”

The MyTerm policies were “sold predominantly to individuals with Hispanic-sounding last names concentrated in Southern California, southern Texas, southern Arizona and southern Florida,” the lawsuit states. Those four states also accounted for the bulk of the sham accounts created by Wells Fargo’s employees, according to the bank’s disclosures.

“When we started peeling back the onion, everywhere we looked, it stunk,” said Mr. Smith, a plaintiff, who earlier this year was a featured speaker at a conference focusing on insurance fraud.

Missteps and Scandal

From sham accounts to releasing client data, Wells Fargo has drawn negative attention several times over the past year.

An unusually high rate of the Prudential policies that Wells Fargo sold in its first year had lapsed — 70 percent — and many were dropped after only one or two months. In some cases, customers never made a single premium payment.

There was also a suspicious pattern of MyTerm policies being closed and reopened, suggesting the unseen hand of a banker trying to buoy sales numbers. For example, “18 clients who purchased the MyTerm policies allowed them to lapse, or they were canceled and then repurchased them two more times,” the lawsuit states.

A former Wells Fargo employee said the bank made no secret that it wanted employees to push various insurance products.

“We were like insurance salespeople without the license,” said Michael Barborek, a former Wells Fargo banker in Orange, Tex. “They wanted us to offer it to everybody who came in.”

To meet their sales goals, some bankers in his branch would sometimes buy cheap policies for their friends and relatives, pay the first month’s premium and then cancel, according to Mr. Barborek — a blatant violation of regulatory rules and Wells Fargo’s own policies. Managers, facing their own pressure to make numbers, looked the other way, he said.

The life insurance product is quick and easy to buy: A customer can complete the application in 15 minutes by answering a few basic medical questions online, without ever speaking to a licensed insurance sales agent. Prudential then, with the permission of the applicant, checks databases, such as pharmaceutical records, to assess the health of an applicant before deciding to issue a policy. The average annual premium is $288.71 for a policy sold through Wells Fargo, which continues to offer MyTerm.


Thomas Schreck, the third plaintiff in the suit against Prudential. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

According to the Prudential employees’ lawsuit, one person who contacted Prudential appeared to have had funds removed from his Wells Fargo savings account by a bank employee to pay for a policy he said he had not authorized. And others who called Prudential were confused about how much they owed each month in premiums, and why.

As is not uncommon with whistle-blower cases, the three employees did not have entirely clean slates at Prudential. They said Prudential told them it was putting them on unpaid leave after another employee had turned over a series of text messages, most more than a year old, in which they were complaining about others within the corporate investigations division.

They contend that the text messages are being used as a pretext by the company to dismiss them for complaining about the handling of the MyTerm investigation.

Mr. Hoffman, the Prudential spokesman, said that the termination of the three employees was “entirely unrelated to Prudential’s business with Wells Fargo and Prudential’s decision to examine the sale of the MyTerm product.” He declined to elaborate on the reason for the firings, noting that Prudential does not comment on employment matters.

Mr. Hoffman said that Prudential began reviewing issues with MyTerm sales after complaints from customers in 2015, and expanded the review after news of the Wells Fargo settlement with regulators became public.

Before they were fired, Ms. Broderick said, she and her two colleagues ran into obstacles when they pressed others at the insurer, which is based in New Jersey, to investigate their findings more aggressively and to notify regulators. They were kicked out of Prudential’s office in Newark, N.J., and put on unpaid leave just days before Thanksgiving, she said.

“We were totally shocked,” Ms. Broderick said. “The game plan was to sweep this under the rug.”

In addition to the suit they filed in State Superior Court in New Jersey’s Essex County, the three intend to file a Dodd-Frank whistle-blower complaint next week with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said one of their lawyers, Christopher Chang, a former Manhattan prosecutor.

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