My Phone Number Is Being Spoofed. What Now?

Nobody likes being blamed for something they haven’t done.  It’s irritating, it’s unfair and in extreme cases — like unwarranted firing or wrongful conviction — it’s genuinely harmful.  Having someone spoof your phone number won’t impact your life to such a degree, but it can still be inconvenient.  Even worse, it puts your own friends, family and colleagues at higher risk of being scammed or defrauded. 

What Is Telephone Spoofing? 

When caller ID was new, telephone systems still ran on old-school copper wires.  Each phone company’s central computer knew the name and number corresponding to a specific set of wires and would display them on demand.  

With the advent of fiber optics, cellular telephones and the voice-over internet protocol (VoIP), that all changed.  Caller ID will still usually provide the real number where a landline or cellular call originates, but the name (and the number as well, for a VoIP call) is looked up in a computerized calling-name database, or CNAM. 

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It’s possible, and legitimate, to have the CNAM report the name or number you choose.  For example, a company that spends millions on advertising to drill its catchy phone number into your memory wants you to see that number, even if it has thousands of other internal lines.  Unfortunately, scammers and hackers can use that same feature to make your caller ID lie to you. That’s phone spoofing. 

Why Would Your Number Be Spoofed?

Scammers use spoofed phone numbers for several reasons.  One is simply camouflage:  They can make scam calls without revealing their own number.  More often, it’s used to tilt the odds in favor of their call being answered or their story believed.  Scammers pretending to call from the IRS or the Social Service Administration can spoof the published numbers for those agencies, for example. 

A subtler form of the same attack is called “neighbor spoofing.”  A lot of us won’t field calls from unknown toll-free numbers or out-of-state numbers, but we’ll take a chance on picking up if the call comes from our local area code (“Hmm, might be one of the neighbors…”).  If your own number is spoofed, this is often why it happens:  Your number just happened to be the one the scammers randomly settled on. 

Scammers may also choose your number in order to target your friends, family and coworkers.  They’re the ones most likely to take your call, of course, or to click on a text received from your phone.  That’s especially true if you’re in a position of influence or responsibility, or if you’re well known in your local community. 

How To Know if Your Phone Number Is Being Spoofed

Your phone itself won’t tell you it’s being spoofed (unless you get a call from your own number, which is a dead giveaway).  It won’t suddenly stop working, and it won’t behave erratically as it sometimes will if it’s hacked or infected with malware

Instead you’ll see a range of direct and indirect signs that something odd is going on, including: 

  • A rash of calls and messages from your friends and family “returning your call” when you haven’t, in fact, called them. 
  • A similar rash of calls or messages from people you don’t know, asking, “Who are you?” or shouting at you to stop calling and texting them. 
  • You call your home number from your cell phone and it comes up on the caller ID display as “Fraud” or “Potential scam.”  These are among a number of new caller ID messages you may have noticed lately, resulting from recent anti-robocall legislation.  

If any of those things have been happening to you, you can turn to Spokeo for another form of indirect confirmation.  Search your own number with our reverse phone lookup, and then check the box where your number’s phone reputation score is displayed.  While it will show as a legitimate number, you may see a sudden rash of searches or complaints. 

It’s not conclusive, but it might give weight to your suspicions. 

What To Do if Your Phone Number Is Being Spoofed

If you realize that your phone number has been spoofed, the first thing you’ll need to do is reach out to your friends, family and colleagues (everyone on your contacts list, in short) and also the companies you do business with, such as your bank or credit card company.  Let them know that someone else is initiating calls or texts from your number, and warn them to be wary of them (and to check with you if they’re in any doubt about whether a given call is legit). 

Your next step is to report these calls to the authorities.  There’s a weird gap in the statutes covering phone spoofing, because for it to be illegal under the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 the calls must be made with the deliberate intention of causing harm or perpetrating fraud.  Nuisance calls, or harassment that doesn’t rise to criminal levels, won’t do it. 

That being said, it’s worth reporting anyway.  Most spoofed calls are fraudulent in purpose, and authorities can pursue certain avenues for investigation and potential prosecution.  Some places you could or should report the incident include: 

  • Your phone carrier. 
  • The FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center.  Under the new robocall legislation mentioned earlier, the FCC has stronger tools for fighting robocalls, spoofing and other forms of telephonic chicanery. 
  • The FTC’s fraud reporting site
  • Local law enforcement, if any fraud was attempted or successfully carried out. 
  • Your local news outlets or consumer-facing fraud prevention sites like the AARP’s Scams & Fraud page or the BBB’s Scam Tracker.  Those don’t contribute directly to tracking down the scammer, but they may help others avoid being taken in by the criminals. 

Recovering From Having Your Phone Number Spoofed

If the spoofed calls continue for an extended period, or are especially intrusive, or if you have been targeted specifically, you may ultimately need to change your phone number. 

That’s the “nuclear option,” because you’ll expend a lot of time and energy letting everyone know your new number.  Also, resetting your login credentials on sites and apps that use your phone number as your username or unique identifier is a real pain.  Most phone carriers will allow you to change your number for free, especially if you’ve been the victim of fraud or spoofing (that’s why you notify them about it), though some may charge a small fee. 

Otherwise, your best bet — once you’ve made the necessary reports — is just to wait it out.  Unless you’ve been targeted individually, the scammers will usually exploit your number for a few days or weeks and then move on.  It makes for a difficult time, and you may have a number of apologies to make, but it’s temporary and passes relatively quickly. 

As these things go, it’s (usually) a relatively minor annoyance within the world of fraudulent criminal activity. 


OnSIP – How Caller ID Works:  Common Questions and Answers

Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Alert:  Neighbor Spoofing Is a Common Type of Phone Scam

WTHR Indianapolis – Oh No!  I’ve Been Spoofed!:  What To Do When Your Number Is Used To Make Robocalls (U.S. Government Publishing Office) – Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009

U.S. Federal Communications Commission – Consumer Complaint Center

U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Report To Help Fight Fraud!

AARP – Scams & Fraud

Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker

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