CLEARWATER — Jaeda Baldizzi was studying for her final exams when she got the call.
It had a 727 area code, the same as her own phone number, so she picked up.
On the other line was a man asking if she remembered filling out a survey at the mall with a chance to win a cruise, a 50-inch plasma TV or "some absurd amount of money," recalled Baldizzi, who's from St. Petersburg but is studying at the University of North Florida.
She didn't, but curious to see where it would go, she said yes. He launched into personal questions about her relationship status and whether she lived with anyone. Baldizzi, 20, hung up, then searched the phone number on Google.
It traced back to Audibel Hearing Center, a hearing aid company with locations all over the Tampa Bay area and a headquarters in Clearwater. Baldizzi soon learned she was one of thousands of people who got fraudulent calls from Audibel. Scammers "spoofed" the business' main phone number, (727) 441-3591, meaning they made it appear outgoing calls were coming from Audibel on caller ID even though they had nothing to do with the business.
The practice is alarmingly easy, experts say, and is the latest go-to method for scammers to get money and information from unsuspecting people. And the problem is only growing. One phone call and data transparency company, First Orion, estimated that fraudulent calls will make up almost half of all cellphone traffic next year.
For such a simple and prolific scam, it has thrown off Audibel's operations for the week as residents call back demanding to be taken off the call list, or wondering why their phone showed half a dozen missed calls from the number, or questioning why a hearing aid business with an elderly customer base was calling a 20-something.
"It's completely shut off our phones at work. We can't even get a normal call," president Michael Wheeler said this week. "It's terrible. So many people have been inconvenienced."
The business noticed the issue Monday. Employees arrived that morning to dozens of missed calls, and both the main line and a rollover line were clogged to the point that Wheeler had two women working in shifts because it was so exhausting. Tuesday morning brought another 250 missed calls, and more throughout the day. It's hardly let up all week, prompting Wheeler to publish an apology letter Wednesday and Thursday in the Tampa Bay Times.
The scams have varied in description, but many were similar to what Baldizzi heard about a sweepstakes, according to Clearwater police. The agency put out a news release Thursday alerting the public.
Beyond that, there's little authorities can do, said Sgt. Tim Downes of the economic crimes unit. Tracking a stolen phone number would be fruitless, and there's little information beyond that to go on.
"There's not even an IP address," Downes said, referring to the specific set of numbers assigned to devices connected to the Internet. "It's just a phone call. It could come from the Internet. It could come from a phone. There's nothing to follow up on."
Even if investigators can track down the carrier for the call, finding the origin can span states or even countries in a vast web that leads to nowhere, said Det. Kurt Frazho of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office economic crimes unit.
Dealing with a victim who may have had their bank accounts wiped or retirement drained, that can be particularly troubling.
"We really want to go after the bad guy and get these people some kind of restitution, but a lot of time they muddy the waters up so much we can't get to that end guy," said Frazho, who estimated phone scam investigations take up about half of the unit's time and resources.
The scammers mainly use technology known as VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, which is basically making phone calls over the Internet, said Patrick Traynor, a University of Florida professor in the department of computer and information science and engineering. That makes spoofing a number as easy and cheap as downloading an app.
Traynor wasn't surprised to hear of Audibel's plight. Scammers will often target a certain geographic area and spoof phone numbers that look local, he said. Sometimes, the phone numbers will look almost identical to your own.
"The goal there is social engineering," Traynor said. "They want you to think somebody might be a friend, somebody I might know, the business I may have interacted with."
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Scammers will also spoof phone numbers from banks or government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service or police departments. Just this year, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had its non-emergency number spoofed. Scammers used it to tell people there was a warrant out for their arrest because they had missed jury duty, but they could pay the fine with gift cards.
Fraudulent callers can also dial several numbers at a time, Traynor said. The person who picks up first will be handed off to the scammer, and the other lines will go dead. That explains why some of the victims in the Audibel spoof said they picked up the phone only to have the line disconnected or discovered one-second voicemails with nothing on them.
Spoofing can serve a legitimate purpose, Traynor said. Whistleblowers or crime tipsters who want to remain anonymous can use it as a tool in lieu of the old pay phone.
But "by far the overwhelming use of this is for fraud," Traynor said.
Beyond the inconvenience and the potential for financial loss or identity theft, Traynor pointed to a more philosophical loss for society.
"There's a real risk that if we don't address this problem, the utility of the phone will go away. It already has," he said. "This is a technological tragedy."
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That reality has already set in for one of the victims of the Audibel spoofing scheme. Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater land use and zoning attorney, had nine missed calls from the number before he called back and got one of the employees. He demanded to know why the business had kept calling him. It only occurred to him after the baffled employee explained that it was a mistake that the phone number must have been hacked.
It wasn't the first time he's dealt with spoofing, Armstrong said, and he knows it won't be the last. He keeps his phone on "do not disturb" mode these days, "which is not ideal," he said, "because sometimes calls are meaningful."
"You want to hear from certain people, but it's just not worth it anymore."
Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.
How to avoid falling victim to phone scams
• Don't pick up if you don't recognize the number. A caller will leave a voicemail if it's important.
• If you do answer, hang up if the caller asks you for personal information.
• Don't press any buttons, either. Scammers will often use that to sell your phone number to someone else.
• Know that any legitimate government agency or business will never ask you to pay for something with gift cards.
• Download robocall-blocking technology, such as the Hiya app.
• If your number gets spoofed, contact the Federal Communications Commission at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov.
Sources: Clearwater Police Department, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, FCC, UF professor Patrick Traynor