Here are two questions that are guaranteed to bring out the worst in almost everyone: 1) “How many calls do you receive in a day?”; and 2) “How many of them are bogus?” Robocalls — whether from legitimate but unscrupulous companies or straight-up scammers — have become such a scourge that Congress overcame its divisions to pass a bipartisan law, the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, to combat them.
Sadly the new law can’t outright eliminate nuisance and scam calls, so a lot of them will still come through. Hanging up on them is effective but not especially satisfying, so you may be tempted to have a bit of fun with them. If you’ve ever wondered how to scare a phone scammer, or at least mess with them a little, we have a few tips.
How to Recognize Scam Calls (a Quick Refresher)
The number of scam calls is limited only by the (sadly fertile) imaginations of scammers, but — whether they claim to be calling from the IRS, the SSA, your bank, a charity or even a sweepstakes you’ve mysteriously won — they all seem to have some features in common.
One is pressure to act quickly, either because of a threat (arrest, deportation, financial loss) or a desire for gain (“limited time offer…act now!”). Another is that they’re usually pretending to call from authorities which do not, in real life, contact you this way. Seriously, real-life police do not call and tell you they’re planning to arrest you. They just do it. The same holds true for the IRS and the SSA.
Finally, real banks and government agencies don’t ask for your personal information over the phone and they don’t demand payment in cash, gift cards or bitcoins. The FTC has a handy phone scams information page, if you’d like a more detailed refresher on the subject.
Why Play Games With the Scammers?
If you announce your intention of messing with the people on the other end of these calls, you’ll almost certainly have friends or family ask you why you’d even bother. If the callers are already wasting your time, what’s the point of wasting even more by engaging with them?
The obvious answer is that it’ll just plain feel good to have the shoe on the other foot for a few minutes. A less obvious answer, though probably more meaningful, is that there are only so many hours in the day: 10 or 20 minutes on the line listening to you is 10 or 20 minutes that aren’t spent swindling someone else out of their money or personal information.
There’s little chance, however good your planned script, that you’ll scare anyone into stopping their scam. Mostly the people at the other end of the line are just low-paid drones working in a call center, some of them shadier than others. Dodgy-but-legitimate companies make a deliberate choice to navigate the outer limits of legality, and outright scammers are typically organized criminals. You aren’t going to frighten or shame them.
How To Scare a Phone Scammer
If your goal is to scare off the scammer or at least deter future calls, there are a few options you can use. One that’s widely recommended on social media is simply blowing a whistle into the phone or screaming at them. Others like the idea of shaming the individual caller at the other end of the line, scolding them and asking if their mother knows how they make a living.
Those make life miserable for the poor schmuck wearing the headset, but the only real deterrent for the creeps running the scam is the threat of being caught and shut down. You might, for example, ask in a stage whisper, “How long do I need to keep them on the line before you can trace it?” as they try to deliver their spiel. Telling them you’re recording the call “to protect your legal rights” is another option. Be careful about actually recording it, because in some states that’s illegal unless you’ve gotten the other party’s permission (but asking for permission is a pretty good deterrent, too).
Don’t bluster at them about calling the cops or the Better Business Bureau; they’ve heard that before. It’s especially important not to tell them anything that’s actually true while you’re yelling at them (“My dad is a cop/lawyer!”), because that information — combined with what they already had or what can be purchased online — might give away your identity to the scammer.
How To Amuse Yourself With a Phone Scammer
If your goal is less to scare off the scammer than to amuse yourself and waste their time, you have more options at your disposal. One is to fake not understanding English, though that might simply mean getting scam immigration calls instead of IRS or SSA scams. You might also repeat their every sentence back to them, but rephrased as a question. After all, it worked really well with your siblings when you were growing up, right?
Readers of snarky, humorous U.K. tech site The Verge reported entertainingly good results from pretending to be elderly and/or in the grip of dementia or mental illness. Alternatively, if your humor runs that way, tell the scammer you’re incontinent and take them to the bathroom for a bout of Jim Carrey-esque excess (pro tip: flush lots). Pretending to be hard of hearing, and creatively misunderstanding everything the caller says, is another fine way to waste a scammer’s time as long as your improv skills are good enough. Letting your toddler tell the scammer a story or putting them on speaker to have a heart-to-heart with your chatty parakeet works too.
It’s even possible to automate the process of leading your scammer into frustration. An app called Robokiller (available from the Play Store and the App Store) doesn’t simply block incoming robocalls, it includes an “answer bot” that electronically trolls the caller for up to 45 minutes at a stretch. There’s a modest monthly fee for the app, but you might think it’s money well spent.
It’s All Fun and Games Until…
As much fun as it is to sit and scheme about how you’ll mess with the next caller, it’s worth remembering that the best and most consistent advice offered up by the authorities is simply to hang up and not engage with the scammers at all.
There’s a good reason for that. Many robocallers simply work their way through a telephone exchange in numerical order, so if your number ends in -8077 they’d have previously called -8076 and they’ll be moving on to -8078 next. Answering the call tells scammers that your number is currently in service and owned by someone who will pick up. That alone moves you from the list of generic numbers to the list of “live ones,” and it’s a list you’d probably prefer not to be on.
What Can a Scammer Do With My Phone Number?
Once you’ve answered and let the scammers know your number is active, you’ve increased the resale value of your phone number and the likelihood of it being used (again, and again, and again) by new crops of criminals.
It’s also important to remember that your phone number doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s a pivotal piece of data that helps make up your overall digital footprint. By engaging, you’ll give scammers an incentive to find the name that’s attached to your phone number. From there, especially if you’ve unwittingly given them personal information, it’s easy for scam artists to compile enough information to steal your identity or sell it to others.
Protecting Yourself From Telephone Scams
Whether you ultimately decide to engage with the criminals or not is up to you, but there are steps you can (and probably should) take to protect yourself. One is to take advantage of your phone carrier’s robocall blocking services, which are often free (though they’ll usually have a premium offering as well, for a fee). Another is to install a reputable robocall blocking app on your devices. You can find plenty of those with a simple search, though as always you should carefully read the reviews before buying one and installing it.
If you’ve already noticed signs that scammers have your personal information, you’ll need to take further steps. You might want to place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report, for example, which makes it harder for fraud artists to abuse your credit. If you haven’t yet seen any signs of trouble, but want as much advance warning as you can get, the dark web monitoring that’s included in a Spokeo Protect membership will alert you if your personal information is detected as available for sale on the internet’s shady underbelly.
In short, feel free to mess with the scammers if you want to. Just make sure your own backside is adequately covered, first.
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Phone Scams
- ThinkProgress – How To Turn the Tables on a Scam Phone Caller
- The Register – Faking Incontinence and Other Ways To Scare off Tech Support Scammers
- Play Store – Robokiller: Block Spam Calls
- App Store – Robokiller: Block Spam Calls
- Tripwire – Some Tips for Dealing With Telephone Scammers
- Forbes – Six Reasons Not To Engage With Scammers, No Matter What Your Facebook Friends Tell YouU.S. Federal Trade Commission – Extended Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes