Ruth Bass: If 'Walter' happens to call, press disconnect


RICHMOND — Mid-afternoon last week, Walter called. Not Pidgeon, not Mondale, not Scott, not Cronkite, not Matthau. Just plain Walter. He called on the house phone, not the cell. For all the dots Verizon puts on its map across the United States, it cannot defend putting one on this street. Its cell doesn't work here.

Anyway, Walter had a marvelous offer. He was calling on behalf of one of my favorite magazines, The Atlantic, and because I was a vintage subscriber, he was going to give me a $100 voucher that I could use at Wal-Mart (uh-uh), Target or a hundred or more other stores.

What a nice idea. But, like those ads for thing-a-ma-bobs on television, there was more. He would also like to offer me some fantastic rate for renewing my subscription. He had the salesman tone, and it was a little folksy for the Atlantic, which isn't chit-chatty at all. So I asked him if he were real.

"Real?" he asked. "Of course I'm real. What do you mean?"

"I get a lot of calls from people who are fake, so I need to know if you are real. Do you have the number of my subscription there — I don't think it's expiring at this time."

"I have your name, address and phone number on my screen."

"What is the address?" He gave it to me, and it was correct. So I asked him if his screen showed whether I was paying for any other subscriptions to Atlantic. It's been one of my presents to my sister for several years now. He said this was the only one. Then I asked what, exactly, he wanted me to do to get this all-inclusive gift certificate. The answer was that I should renew right then and there.

Uh-oh. My answer to all calls for a purchase or a donation that will involve my credit card is to invite the caller to mail the plea. I told a veterans' outfit that only yesterday, to the man's chagrin — although he may not have been real, either. When I recently asked a political fund-raising person if he were a scam, he seemed appalled. Not on the phone, I said.

It's essential to chase these people away. It doesn't matter whether they are legit or crooked. They can send pledge cards — many of which are also unwelcome — and the recycling bin is at the ready. But another hazard is not human. It involves a message on the cell phone with a call-back number. Beware. If it's area code 649 (Turks and Caicos), 809 (Dominican Republic and not Big Papi's home phone), 284 (British Virgin Islands), and 876 (Jamaica), you'll end up with a big bill for an international call. It's a scam.

Scams, it turns out, are as common as sunburns on a crowded beach. One Internet survey reported in 2014 that 17.6 million Americans were phone victims over a 12-month period, mostly on cell phones. And, for some reason, men were more likely to lose money in a phone scam than women — 71 percent to 29 percent. Perhaps the men should turn to Lily Tomlin's famous portrayal of a nosy, sarcastic telephone operator.

I hung up on Walter and called The Atlantic where a human being answered the phone almost immediately and assured me that the magazine never calls anyone. So, despite his actual or perhaps feigned surprise at my question, Walter is definitely not real.

Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her web site is


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