“A call from my own number? What the…”
Caller ID has become pretty sophisticated over the last few years, and changes in legislation have led to a lot of new caller-ID messages that can be confusing until you know what they mean. Getting a call from your own number takes that confusion to a whole other level.
If you haven’t had that experience yet, you’re in luck. Here’s our quick primer on how it happens, why it happens and — most importantly — why you should never answer that call.
Caller ID goes back farther than you might think: The original patent goes back to 1971 and identified numbers by decoding the electrical pulses that the landline phones of the day sent out over their copper wires. Things are much more sophisticated now because calls are computerized and mostly routed along fiber-optic lines.
This makes for faster connections and improved call quality, but it also opens the door for caller-ID information to be manipulated. This is a feature of the system, not a bug or a shortcoming. For example, if you work at Acme Inc., you might have 20 or 30 direct lines for calling into your office, but you’ll usually want them all to show up as “Acme Inc.” on the caller ID when you phone out. It’s also how professionals working from home during COVID were able to make calls from their own phones but still have them show on caller ID under their business name.
Caller ID spoofing takes that legitimate feature and weaponizes it so that unscrupulous businesses or outright criminals can call you from what appears to be a legitimate or trusted number. It means you’re more likely to pick up, and therefore leave yourself open to exploitation.
Don’t Answer a Call From Your Own Number
A lot of phone scams only work when the call seems plausible. It’s not unreasonable to expect a bank or credit card provider to reach out to you if there’s a problem, for example, and many scams exploit this. Similarly, while the IRS will never call you as the first option for collection, most people don’t know that.
A spoofed call appearing to come from your own number shouldn’t work, because obviously, it’s not coming from your phone and therefore isn’t plausible. Yet the FTC’s blog post warning about this ploy goes all the way back to 2015, so obviously, scammers have been using the technique successfully for several years. It works because human nature is a funny thing. Have you ever caught yourself touching the paint next to a “Wet Paint” sign, “just to see”? That’s precisely the quirk in our makeup the scammers are exploiting.
Whether your impulse is simple curiosity (“What the heck?”) or anger (“Gonna give ‘em a piece of my mind!”), once you pick up the phone, you’ve done exactly what the scammers want.
When Scammers Spoof Your Phone Number
Once you’ve picked up, a few different things can happen (none of them good). In one version of this attack, callers claim to be from your phone carrier — which neatly explains how they could use your own number — and that your account may have been breached. In the classic scammer tradition, they’ll ask you to “verify” your account information, or in other words, help them commit fraud and identity theft against you.
The subtler danger in this type of phone spoofing isn’t a direct attempt at scamming you. Instead, it simply raises the value of your own phone number. Think about this: It’s easy to set a computer to dial a list of sequential numbers, picking an exchange (say, 555) and then dialing every number from 555-0000 to 555-9999. The issue is that many of those numbers aren’t in use, or don’t accept incoming calls, or belong to people who simply won’t pick up an unknown number.
Just by answering the call, you’ve told an entrepreneurially minded criminal that your number is in service and will be answered. If you follow a prompt to “press 1 to stop receiving future calls” (or some other instruction), you’ve told them that a human will answer it. If you stay on the line to hear a message or “speak to an operator,” they know the call will be answered by a human who — and this is important — will engage with them.
How Scammers Monetize Your Response
Time is money for scammers, just as it is for legitimate businesses. Starting from a list of “known good” phone numbers instead of a string of consecutive numbers is simply a more cost-effective way to operate. A list of numbers belonging to people who will interact with a random caller is even more valuable because those people are prime candidates for scamming.
The criminal world has its own service industry, and setting up an autodialer to crunch a numerical list and winnow out the “good” numbers is a viable business model. Those numbers — potentially your number — can then be sold at a profit to scammers and spammers who will bombard you with even more calls, knowing that their chances of getting a response are much better than with random numbers.
If you’re unfortunate enough to fall for one of the resulting scams, you might find yourself in a full-scale identity theft situation with its attendant stress and financial losses.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve already fallen for one of these schemes, there are a few things you can do. We’ve written previously about the repercussions of identity theft and how to recover from them. If you’ve been defrauded, you’ll want to report your case to the credit agencies and the FTC’s Report Fraud or IdentityTheft.gov website, at a minimum. If you haven’t been scammed but did answer a spoofed call, well, you’re just going to need to grit your teeth and expect an uptick in the number of shady calls you receive.
Help for consumers is coming on the regulatory front. The recent Pallone-Thune TRACED Act increased enforcement against robocalls throughout the phone system in the U.S. The FTC has also proposed new regulations that would intercept calls originating overseas (a thorny problem for law enforcement) at the point where they enter the U.S. telephone system.
Ultimately, though, the biggest takeaway is pretty straightforward: Don’t answer a call from your own number. Don’t push any buttons, don’t tell them off, don’t do anything. You may get a burst of these calls over a period of days, but if you don’t respond, the scammers will simply move along.
- Google Patents: Decoding and Display Device for Groups of Pulse Trains
- U.S. Internal Revenue Service: Taxpayers Should Know the Signs of a Phone Scam, Especially During Filing Season
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission: Getting Calls From Your Own Number?
- CBS 3 Philadelphia: Scam Alert: If Your Own Phone Number Calls You, Don’t Pick Up
- Ars Technica: FCC Plans to Rein in “Gateway” Carriers That Bring Foreign Robocalls to US
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission: Report to Help Fight Fraud!
- IdentityTheft.gov: Report Identity Theft and Get a Recovery Plan