Imagine a brazen burglary at the police precinct and you'll understand what the Federal Trade Commission was up against.
For weeks, consumers had been complaining about robocalls seeming to come from inside the FTC itself - Caller ID showed 877-382-4357, the toll-free number that translates as 877-FTC-HELP.
The recorded calls directed recipients to a website called FTCRefund.com, gave them a six-digit "Seizure ID Number," and suggested that they were due a refund from "American Consumer Group Inc."
But it was all a fraud, the FTC said Monday. The agency that polices the consumer marketplace - and that long has struggled with tech-savvy scammers' ability to block or disguise the phone system's Caller ID data - had itself fallen victim.
FTC officials got a court order Friday barring a New York woman, Suhaylee Rivera, and her company, the Cuban Exchange Inc., which does business as CrediSure America and MyiPad.us, from operating fraudulent websites or making deceptive calls.
Investigators said the apparent goal was to obtain consumers' personal and financial information for frauds such as ID theft.
One Akron, Ohio, resident who captured the robocall on voice mail reported being directed to the FTCRefund website, which redirected her to CrediSure. Entering the special code provided - or, as she discovered, any numbers or no numbers at all - generated a screen saying she was due a $378 refund. For a 5.55 percent fee, CrediSure claimed it could get her money that the FTC itself would take up to 10 weeks to deliver.
The key was what came next: The site asked for the woman's name, bank account number, and bank routing number to process her supposed refund.
It's not yet clear whether anyone lost money, said Will Maxson, program manager for FTC enforcement of the national Do Not Call registry. But Maxson said the scheme stood out for its sheer gall.
"It takes a lot of chutzpah to spoof the phone number of the nation's consumer-protection agency and to use the FTC's name in a bogus website in an attempt to obtain consumers' personal details and bank-account information," he said.
Maxson said the FTC had no record of ""American Consumer Group" or familiarity with Rivera's companies. Although it uses contractors to deliver refunds, he said, they do not take a cut, and they send ordinary paper checks.
Maxson said the case highlighted the challenge posed by Internet phone systems, which make it easy to lie to Caller ID - a problem that the FTC sought solutions for at October's "Robocalls Summit" but that has so far defied experts.
"You can take whatever number you want and change it as often as you want," he said. "It's simply a matter of changing a line of program code."