Cambrian: Slice of Life

I got a ‘reverse-911’ call during an emergency in Cambria. Here’s how to know it’s not a scam

At about 9:08 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 13, my landline phone rang. The caller ID said “private caller,” but when I clicked to get more information, I recognized the number of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

That presented a conundrum.

As a concerned citizen and a reporter, if the department wants to talk to me, by golly, I want to talk to them. As a spam-call-weary consumer, however, I’ve gotten much more wary about which calls I answer, which ones I monitor to see if someone leaves an important message and which ones I ignore/erase.

Adding to the confusion about this situation, we all were alerted late last month about spam/hacker calls that appeared to be coming from the Sheriff’s Office.

But of course, they weren’t. A spammer was trying to convince gullible souls that, because they’d failed to report for jury duty, there was a warrant out for their arrest and if the fine wasn’t paid immediately over the phone, the scam victim would go to jail.

Bah humbug.

We’ve all been warned regularly about phony, scam-related phone calls ... from the Social Security Administration, IRS, a supposed grandchild in jail in a foreign country, and even from numbers and names we know well. I recently got one TO my own number FROM my own number!

So, how was I to know if this call was legit?

I took a chance and answered. The recorded voice said the Sheriff’s Office had an important message for me, and I was to press any key on my phone to get the message (Dispatch Manager Rhonda Durian told me later that this was an anomaly, and the vast majority of so-called Reverse 911 calls immediately gave the message. Lucky me.)

But ... but ...

We’ve also been warned that pressing a key, or saying “yes,” or doing some other reasonable-sounding action during a spam call could connect you to something that could cause you trouble, cost you an exorbitant amount of money or both.

No thanks. I didn’t want a bill for a $95 call to an obscure someplace half a world away.

So, in an excess of caution Oct. 13, I hung up ... because I knew I could call the Sheriff’s Office and find out if the call was legit.

It was. A terminally ill friend with a failing memory was missing, and the Reverse 911 call was notifying area residents to watch for him and let officials know if they saw him. Fortunately, Search and Rescue Team members found him a few hours later and took him home to his panicked family. (Sadly, he died about a week later.)

But when the phone rings, how are we to know? When firmly stuck between the rock of so many incoming spam scams and the hard-place reality that the call may be genuine, what are we to do?

I asked Justin Nelson, commander of the Sheriff’s Office Coast Station, who checked with Durian, who’s in charge of the department’s Reverse 911 system. They said:

• A Reverse 911 call (now technically labeled Vesta Alerts) from the Sheriff’s Office will be a recording providing information or directions to you, not a live person trying to solicit money or something else from you. The commander said, “If the call starts dialing to an operator, hang up.”

• It’s a red-flag scam alert if a caller demands immediate payment via the activation code on a gift card or Google card. Hang up. Fast. “If they tell you to send money or pay them,” Nelson said, “it’s not us. We never do business that way.”

• In this county, Reverse 911 calls nearly always come from a sheriff’s office-system number that starts 805-781-45__. He said “that’s not to say somebody can’t spoof (mimic) that number,” so if you have concerns, don’t answer and then call the Sheriff’s Office non-emergency dispatch line at 805-781-4550, pressing option 3.

You might want to write that number down.

Sadly, there’s no complete answer, no perfect system for getting the information to us, no safe way to know BEFORE YOU ANSWER THE CALL if the person on the other end of the line is someone you want or need to talk to.

And I resent the daylights out of that. Spammers invade my privacy, my life, my security, my job.

As a reporter, I rely heavily on my phone. I get many important calls from phone numbers I don’t recognize. So, I’ll continue answering the ringing phone, being fully aware that by doing so, I could be cluing in yet another spammer that there really is a live person at my number, thereby creating for myself a potential scam-call free-for-all. At 6 a.m. On a holiday Sunday.

Bah humbug, indeed.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune