Telephone scams are a global problem. Even if you’ve had the good fortune to never find yourself on the phone with a scammer, you probably receive at least one call a day from an unknown number. While these calls could be a telemarketer or scams over the phone, the bottom line is they’re annoying. Furthermore, everyone is a potential target. Unlike the personalized ads you see on the Internet showing you the same pair of shoes or patio furniture you just looked at, phone scammers rarely break down their targets by demographic.
Older Americans are the one exception to this – they appear to be targeted more by phone scammers due to assumptions that they have more savings than younger people, may live alone, and may be less sophisticated about technology and the latest scams. However, as scammers become more sophisticated in their methods, anyone has a chance of becoming a victim.
Regardless of your age and other factors, it’s in your best interest to learn how to identify and handle phone scams. In this article we explain recent popular phone scams, how to identify them, and where to report them. We also show you the steps you can take to block and avoid phone scams in the future.
Popular Phone Scams
Scammers are endlessly inventive. Just as we think we’ve caught on to their tricks, they come up with a new ploy. The popular phone scams of today consist of a mix of old and new. Here are the three main categories of phone scams to look out for, as well as some of the most common approaches used within each type of scam.
The Scammer-Initiated Phone Call
This is the oldest type of phone scam. Your phone rings and it’s a scammer on the other line. However, modern technology has provided new tools for telephone scams. Here’s what to look for:
- Caller ID Forgery: Have you noticed that most of the unsolicited calls you receive now come from local area codes? They often share the first three digits of your number, in addition to the area code. Some people receive calls from their own phone number, which is spooky to say the least. How do they do that? Phone scammers use software to alter or “forge” the number that appears on your Caller ID. The logic behind their thinking is that people are more willing to answer an unknown local number than an out-of-state one. You may think it’s a doctor’s office or another local business whose number you didn’t save. Using a fake number also impedes the ability of law enforcement to trace the origins of scam phone calls. If the number on your caller ID is your own, it’s highly likely a scam, but scammers are betting that your curiosity will override your caution.
- Seasonal Phone Call Frauds: Every year in January, tax scammers appear like clockwork, trying to deceive as many Americans as possible before the filing deadline in April. It’s a good idea to check the IRS website for current phone scams related to your tax returns. This year, for example, scammers impersonated IRS employees to threaten Americans with arrest or other penalties if they didn’t immediately pay the amount they purportedly owed to the IRS. Another IRS phone scam involved erroneous refunds and scammers impersonating collection agencies to get you to “return” the amount of your refund.
- “Current Events” Phone Scams: Telephone fraudsters are opportunists who seize on big news stories for a new approach to tricking people. For example, a hurricane can bring out scammers who impersonate charities; a big data breach can be used as an excuse to call people and ask them to “verify” sensitive information such as bank account, credit card, or social security numbers. Remember that any legitimate business, such as your credit union, would never call you to request your private information. \
- Government Agency Scams: This is a particularly malicious type of scam that uses caller ID forgery to display the government agency’s real hotline number. Then the scammer impersonates an FBI agent and says you’re under investigation. Who would not be afraid to be under FBI investigation? The fake agent tells you to pay a fee right away to avoid arrest. Other scams include someone impersonating the Department of Homeland Security claiming you’ve been the victim of identity theft. Ironically, their lie will come true if you share the personal information they ask for in order to “verify” your identity. Scammers don’t just impersonate the federal government; they also pretend to be courthouse employees and threaten you with arrest (again, if you don’t pay the fine they demand) for missing jury duty.
- Bait and Switch: Scammers basically have two options for coercing you into giving them money or sensitive information: the carrot or the stick. If the previous examples make up the “stick approach” of emotional manipulation and threats, this last type of scammer-initiated phone call fraud illustrates the “carrot approach.” Bait and switch scammers offer prizes, products and services, or investment opportunities to lure you into paying for something or sharing information. Some of these offers may actually be real, such as a trial offer for a subscription service or a car warranty, but even the genuine offers are not good deals or things you need.
A Phone Scam Impersonating Your Credit Union
Recently, a SkyOne member received a voicemail from a person claiming to work for SkyOne Fraud Prevention Services. The voicemail message included a callback number and even a case number, which illustrates the effort scammers put into making their messages sound authentic. When the member called back, the person on the other line paused, pretending to look up the account, and then asked the member for their entire credit card number to verify his identity. Realizing that the credit union would never call members and ask them to share personal information, , our member realized it was a scam and hung up immediately.
This new technology allows businesses, like a pharmacy or doctor’s office, to provide convenient reminders to patients and customers in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. But robocalls are also used for scam phone calls. As National Public Radio reports, robocalls almost always use local numbers, in what is called “neighbor spoofing,” to get you to answer. Here are some of the current robocall phone scams in rotation:
- Caller ID Forgery:Can you hear me?” If you hear this line after answering an unknown number, hang up right away. The voice on the other end is likely a pre-recorded robocall. At its most innocuous, this type of scam robocall may be a “phishing expedition” to test the accuracy of your number and your level of engagement. Responding to questions or prompts will just lead to more scam calls. But the most harmful outcome of a “Can you hear me?” robocall is that your affirmative response will be recorded and used to impersonate you in identity theft situations like opening a new credit card account in your name.
- Sweepstakes: Just as with regular scam phone calls, robocall scams use fake sweepstakes to lure you into paying shipping and handling or other fees on “free” prizes such as vacations, services, or products.
- Special Offers: Some robocall scams start by saying “you’ve been specially selected for this offer” and try to collect your personal information by getting you to “sign up” for a personal loan or other offer of credit.
This term is a mashup of SMS (an abbreviation for text messages) and phishing (a type of email fraud). Smishing scams consist of texts that either ask for personal information to resolve a fake account problem or offers for giveaways or appealing low-rate loans and credit cards. In either scenario, you should never share sensitive information over text or click on links in scam texts.
How to Identify Phone Scams
Now that you’re familiar with current phone scams, you’ll have an easier time avoiding them. However, some phone scammers use the same techniques as telemarketers, making it harder to tell the difference. The safest approach is to avoid calls from unknown numbers altogether. Don’t pick up and don’t return the call unless you receive a voicemail that assures you the number is legitimate. Still, many of us will pick up the phone to a scammer, thinking it’s our child’s school or another local matter. Here are some telltale signs you’re talking to a scammer:
- Unusual friendliness: Sure, most of us are polite to strangers, but scammers are often suspiciously friendly. They may address you by first name as if you’re already acquainted, take a few minutes to chat about the weather, or even ask about your kids or family.
- Time Pressure: If you have to “buy now” or make the charitable contribution/payment over the phone, just say no and hang up. Even if it was a legitimate telemarketer you don’t want to make spending decisions under pressure.
- Information Requests: No legitimate government employee, private company or bank will ever call you up and ask for sensitive information over the phone. This is a huge red flag and you should never provide the requested information.
- Attempts to Establish Trust: Phone scammers often appeal to our emotions or our sense of politeness. One example of this is to ask, “do you trust me?” You may feel rude saying no, and so the scammer gradually manipulates you into going along with the scam. They may even direct you to a website of fake customer testimonials. Again, if someone is working this hard to gain your trust (and money or information) in phone call, it’s probably a scam.
- Odd Hours: Telemarketers are restricted by law to making phone calls between 8 am and 9 pm. Any sales calls outside of those hours are breaking the law, increasing the probability that it’s a scam call.
Questions to Ask
If you’re still not sure whether you’re talking to a scammer, try asking some of these questions:
- Who are you, what company are you calling from, and what is the purpose of this call? Telemarketers are required by law to identify the call as a sales call, and to disclose the name of the seller and the product before they go into any details.
- What’s the hurry? If they can’t provide written information about an offer and give you time to decide, there’s probably something fishy going on.
- Is the “free gift or prize” really free? If you have to pay any fees to redeem the prize you’ve won or receive the free gift, you’re making a purchase.
- Why do you need me to confirm or provide my account information? Legitimate companies and entities don’t usually call and ask you to very your information.
- What percentage of my donation goes toward the charity’s mission? If a supposed charity can’t answer basic questions like this one you’re better off doing your own research to find a better option.
Where to Report Suspected Telephone Scams
It’s important to take the time to report suspected telephone scams. By doing so, you can help other people in your community avoid falling for the trick.
- The Federal Trade Commission: Choose the relevant category from the FTC Complaint Assistant.
- Your local police station: Some scams are localized, but even if this isn’t the case your local police force can help you deal with phone scams and get the word out to others.
- The company or organization in question: With scam phone calls that impersonate a company, financial institution, or government agency, report the suspicious call to the entity in question. They can tell you whether it was authentic and alert other people and customers.
How to Avoid Popular Phone Scams
Before you end up on the line with a phone scammer, take these steps to avoid receiving scam phone calls in the first place.
- Join the National Do Not Call List: You can register both your cell phone and landline (if you have one). At the same website you can also report unwanted calls (likely scammers) that violate the list.
- Use a call blocking app on your cell phone: Hiya Caller ID and Block is free for iOS devices. Should I Answer is free for Android devices. Both apps provide phone number ratings and give you the option of blocking calls to and/or from hidden numbers, premium rate numbers, foreign countries, numbers with bad ratings, or all unknown numbers or numbers you specify on a private block list. These apps can protect you from scam calls as well as blocking annoying telemarketing calls.
- Manually block unknown numbers: Most cell phones give you the option of individually blocking numbers. If you receive a call from an unknown number with no voicemail, you can block it to avoid repeated calls from the same number.
If you are targeted by a SkyOne impersonation scam such as the earlier example, contact a SkyOne Member Services Representative right away to report it. We can also help with questions you may have regarding any other kind of scam, identity theft, or concern about your SkyOne account(s).
Stay informed about the latest data breaches, phishing scams, and related alerts by checking the Breaking News feed at the bottom of our website.