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Siri, don't call a travel agent — smart devices can lead to scam calls, watchdog warns

The Better Business Bureau has cautioned against blindly relying on smart home gadgets for making phone calls. Instead of calling a legitimate business, the devices can connect users to fake customer service numbers that advertise on search engines.

Voice-activated smart home devices sometimes call fake customer service numbers

The auto-dialling feature on smart home gadgets like Google Home and Alexa may dupe users into scam calls. (Adam Killick/CBC)

Pulling up a recipe, playing music or dimming the lights of your room — voice-controlled smart devices like Alexa, Google Home and Siri-enabled HomePod have plenty of uses.

But the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has cautioned against blindly relying on these gadgets to make phone calls. 

The auto-dialling feature lets a user instruct the device to search for a business online and dial its number  — all hands-free and without looking at a screen. 

But according to the BBB's scam alert, instead of calling a legitimate business, the devices have connected users with a fraudulent "representative." That's because fake customer service numbers can become top results on search engines like Google by paying for advertisements. 

One victim used the voice search feature on her home-assistance to call customer service to change her seat on an airline, according to BBB's media release. But the scammer tried to trick her into paying $400 in prepaid gift cards by insisting the airline was running a special promotion.

“While technology does make life easier, there are situations where we could possibly think about going the old fashioned route,” says Karla Davis, manager for community and public relations with the Better Business Bureau. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

'They're not a 100 per cent smart'

Scammers posing as real businesses aren't new. Last month, BBB issued a scam alert on 'Expedia Imposters' in which fake phone operators scammed people into spending hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards on bogus travel bookings. Customers landed on the fake websites created by criminals through search engines like Google. 

Karla Davis, community relations manager at BBB, says the latest development is the first time they've seen a smart gadget lead people to con artists.  

"We forget that they are smart, but they're not a 100 per cent smart," says Davis.

"The fact that the device can't distinguish between a phoney number and a legitimate number does put you at risk of calling a scammer by mistake."

The BBB has received 12 reports of similar attempted scams in North America, but none from Canada. Davis says prevalence of voice-controlled devices and heavy reliance on gadgets means the scam could easily hit closer to home. 

Davis says customers should look up information on a company's official website on their own instead of letting a voice-assisted device sift through sponsored advertisements on a search engine. 

"While technology does make life easier, there are situations where we could think about going the old fashioned route," says Davis. 


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