A call Monday from a resident alerted me to a possible phone scam with the potential to cost unsuspecting citizens hundreds of dollars.
The caller, who I’ll name “Mike,” said he had been checking the messages for his elderly mother and noted two in the last week from an unknown number.
Mike called the number back and said the answering system seemed official enough but shuffled him around before he could speak to someone claiming to be a representative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The subject said Mike’s mother was slated to receive a $48,000 grant, he said. However, the subject then said a refundable payment of $200 to $500 would be needed in order to process the grant and that failure to pay it would result in the loss of the grant. Mike wisely stopped the call.
He told me if he hadn’t screened it, it’s likely his 85-year-old mother would have agreed to pay the fee.
When I asked HUD Public Affairs Officer Ed Cabrera in San Francisco about the call, he immediately felt it was a scam. He explained the department does not work specifically with residents or homeowners but through intermediary agencies like the Crescent City Housing Authority.
“HUD never contacts people directly to award funds,” he said. “Nor do we require fees for basic services.”
Cabrera said despite HUD’s best efforts to alert people to such scams, the practice continues. He said the Houston, Texas number did not appear to be a HUD office but contacted a counterpart there to follow up on the call.
Cabrera later confirmed the number, 713-481-5227, is not a HUD number, as all of the HUD offices in Texas have a prefix of 718, not the 481 prefix.
Cabrera said attempts to call the number from his office and his personal cell only produced a busy signal. He later said he got through.
“I, too, heard the automated recording and prompts and suspect that this is an organized attempt to defraud unsuspecting members of the public,” he said.
With confirmation the number was not a HUD office, I decided to call it myself, and did so a few times.
As Mike had told me, the initial answering system identifies itself as the U.S. “Federal Grant Department of Housing and Urban Development,” giving only two extensions for those wishing to inquire about their claims. Both go to the same mailbox, saying “The person at extension 17134815227 (same as the phone number) is unavailable,” and asks that a message be left.
I was hoping to get a real person on the line, as Cabrera had given me some data I could use to formulate my questions. I’ll keep trying as time allows. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with his advice:
Cabrera stressed HUD will never call to inform individuals they have been awarded a grant by phone or email.
“Another fact about HUD’s programs are that none fund grants that benefit individuals or households directly,” he said in an email. “All grants are disbursed through state and local agencies. So, when an individual or family benefit from a HUD grant, they are accessing that benefit through a state or local-level intermediary organization.”
With the holidays approaching, one should always be cautious of any phone call or email that asks for a credit card number or that money be sent or wired.
If you know someone who may be susceptible to phone scams, remind them to simply say, “I don’t give that information over the phone, please mail me a bill,” when asked for money over the phone. If the caller is legitimate, they should have no problem mailing a bill or invoice that can be properly reviewed and confirmed by another party. Placing a note near their phone with the response may help them to remember.
HUD’s investigative branch is the Office of the Inspector General, which encourages the public to report possible fraud attempts. Cabrera said the number and information has been given to OIG for investigation.
One may report such scam attempts online at HOTLINE@hudoig.gov.
Reach Tony Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org