Protecting Yourself from Phone Scams

What do you do when your phone rings? Even if you only answer numbers you recognize it’s difficult to avoid scammers who seek your personal information – or your cash.

Using phones to fraudulently extract money from unwitting victims can be wire fraud, a felony offense, and violation of tort law, but is very difficult to prosecute.

Frequency is Accelerating

Many experts predicted that in 2019 at least half of all calls to mobile phones would be scam attempts after their successes in past years. Scam calls numbered 50 billion in 2017, raking in $350 million from victims who believed their stories. Holiday periods are when people are most likely to be victimized.

You may limit calls from legitimate businesses by adding your number to the federal Do Not Call Registry but unfortunately, this does not prevent scammers from trying to contact you because they operate outside the law. Using reverse phone lookup directories can help to determine if a call is legitimate, and never providing personal information to a caller will limit your chances of becoming a victim.

Types and Common Tactics

Phone scams follow similar tactics. Below are some of the most common types. Keep in mind that anyone, young or old, may be victimized because scammers play the numbers: they use computers to dial thousands of telephone numbers an hour, and even if they can get a tiny fraction of victims to send money they can make millions of dollars over time.

IRS Scams:

  • Many people have been contacted by a person claiming to be from the IRS and calling about unpaid taxes. These scammers may ask for your Social Security number and birthdate to confirm your identity, which can give them many opportunities to access personal accounts or to open new accounts using your personal data. At times these scammers will continue to press for payment of the taxes they claim are overdue, demanding that money be transferred, whether cash payments or gift cards.
  • A recent IRS scam uses “spoofed” phone numbers that appear to come from the agency itself. A message left on the victim’s voice mail asks for a callback, and when that happens the person’s Social Security number and birthdate are requested as confirmation of identity. This information can be used to access the victim’s accounts or to open new accounts in the victim’s name. Although the IRS may sometimes contact residents about their accounts they suggest that if you have any suspicion about a call you think may not be authentic you should call the IRS on its 1-800 number.

International Scams:

  • A “one ring” scam may use autodialers to call thousands of homes several times each. Most of the time these scammers rely on impatient homeowners to call the number back seeking the reason why they are getting single-ring calls. When the victim reaches the scammers, a variety of techniques may be used to attempt to get personal information from the victim and access or open accounts in the victim’s name or to perhaps charge the victim for the incoming call. To avoid this scam, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests not answering calls from unknown numbers and not returning calls to international numbers, even blocking the ability to make outgoing international calls.
  • Immigrants to the United States are often victims of phone scams that target them specifically. Callers may claim to be an IRS or police officer who demands payment to keep the victim out of jail for some fake charge. The victim may provide a credit card number or buy gift cards in large denominations that the scammers can cash.

Elderly Scams:

  • A family member in need is a scam that preys on an elder’s devotion to family and difficulty responding to emotional issues calmly. This scam pretends that a grandchild or other vulnerable member of the victim’s family has either been injured and needs funds to get treatment or has been arrested and needs cash bail immediately. The victim, acting out of loyalty, will often provide a credit card number or will wire funds to help.
  • Spoofed numbers uses technology to mimic a local phone number so the victim who monitors his caller I.D. is more likely to answer the call. At times scammers are sophisticated enough to duplicate a victim’s phone number and call others using it as the spoofed origin of future scam calls, resulting in others accusing the victim of being the scammer.
  • Charity calls seek donations to fake organizations, particularly after a natural disaster such as a flood, tornado, hurricane, or wildfire. Oftentimes the name of the fake charity will be very similar to an authentic organization’s name. Consumer protection agencies suggest making donations only by mail after checking the veracity of an organization’s use of donations through a database like GuideStar.org and never responding to a phone call solicitation.