The difference between common phone scams and old-fashioned telemarketing is a line that has grown increasingly thin.
Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s consumers were reliant on their landlines. Telemarketers predictably -and annoyingly- called in the early evening, right around dinner when they could be sure someone was around to pick up the phone. With the advent of mobile phones the landlines are gone, as are the predictable calling hours of the telemarketers.
The assumption that anonymous calls are just pesky telemarketers can be both erroneous and dangerous. According to the New York Times, phone scams are on the rise. So how can you tell the difference between an old-fashioned telemarketer and a phone scammer?
The unfortunate answer is it’s not easy to identify phone scams. This means that you need to familiarize yourself with the most common tactics used by scammers to keep yourself secure.
Phone Scams and Spoofing
The first step to avoiding scammers is knowing how they get you to pick up the phone in the first place. Both phone scammers and telemarketers use robocalls to do just that.
Robocalls are automated calls dialed and performed by a computerized robot. They play pre-recorded messages that will prompt users to follow a series of instructions that may or may not lead to an actual person on the other line. Not all robocalls are illegitimate. During election season, politicians and political parties use robocalls as a way to connect with voters.
In the past, phone caller identification could determine whether the unfamiliar calls were from out-of-state or outright unknown. But new technology allows both phone scammers and telemarketers to sidestep caller IDs and mimic local neighborhood area codes. This technique is called “spoofing.”
Scammers use spoofing to make it appear that they are calling from a legitimate and local number in hopes that you’ll pick up the phone. Some phone scams are able to copy familiar phone numbers, like those of your bank or local law enforcement.
You can run a scammer phone number lookup on Spokeo to search for the owner of any local area code phone calls you receive.
The 5 Most Common Phone Scams
Scams are as plentiful and diverse as the robocallers that make them. However, phone scams share many traits. Here are some of the most common phone scams and how they work.
Loan & Student Payment Scams
Be wary of any robocalls offering 0% interest rates on consumer credit cards and home or auto loans. With student debt on the rise, phone scammers are quick to target this vulnerable demographic and offer to ease or disappear the payments altogether for a fee.
Signs that these offers may be a scam include:
- lowering or erasing loan payments for a fee
- 0% interest on a credit card, home or auto loan, etc.
- the claim that the offer is limited and requires action
Usually these scams will urge victims to make a decision right away, or ask for personal information such as pre-existing credit card numbers, home addresses or even the license plates of registered vehicles.
Students may be asked by phone scammers for their FSA ID. Never give out your FSA ID. Since the FSA ID can be used as a signature on legally binding contracts, the scammers can effectively use these to steal your identity and open credit cards.
Unlike loan scams which offer the hope of a good deal, banking scams usually prey upon the victim’s fear. The phone scammer will pose as a banking authority and pretend to call about an overdrawn account or bounced check. They will follow up the alert with an urgent request for an immediate payment.
Some banking scams fool their targets by pretending to call from their bank’s 24 hour fraud hotline to warn them about suspicious activity on their account. These calls may not demand payment but rather attempt to gain personal identification, such as your card number, banking passwords, family names, Social Security numbers and birthdates. This information can then be used by the scammer to impersonate your identity and bypass your bank’s security.
Because spoofing allows phone scammers to copy phone numbers you can’t be one hundred percent sure whether the number calling you is authentic or fake. Even if the caller sounds sincere and is alerting you to fraudulent activity, be safe, hang up and call your bank.
If you have opted for mobile banking you can also verify your account activity online. Be sure to end the phone call and connect to a secure wifi source or use your own cellular data streaming.
Hallmarks of a banking scam include:
- calls that warn about overdrawn or bounced payments
- threats and demands to pay immediately
- urgent calls alerting you to “suspicious” banking activity
- requests for your banking information, such as a card number
- calls that require “immediate action”
Remember, the best course of action is to remain calm, hang up and call the bank yourself.
IRS Spoofing Scams
Recently the IRS put out a warning about falsified calls from phone scammers claiming to represent the tax agency. Spoofing allows phone scammers to copy the IRS’s phone number make robocalls by the thousands.
The goal of these scammers can be multifold. They may claim that you owe money on your tax returns. Or they might simply ask you to verify your name and Social Security number. In either case, it is best to refrain from giving out any personal information.
Here are some tips from the IRS that can help you identify a falsified call:
- the IRS will never make pre-recorded messages asking for a call back.
- the IRS will never demand that taxes be paid without giving you a chance for an official appeal.
- they will not threaten to use law enforcement if payments are not paid immediately.
If the caller asks for you to make tax payments with gift cards, credit card or banking account information, simply hang up the phone. The IRS will not ask for you to make tax payments over the phone with these methods.
Utility & Jury Duty Scams
Another popular phone scam impersonates utility companies and service providers.
These phone scammers will spoof the numbers of utility provider and demand payment for late or unpaid energy bills. In some cases they will threaten to cut off water or electricity if their demands aren’t met, or intimidate the victims with the promise of law enforcement. They will then ask for identifying information, such as an account number, or for payment in the form of credit cards, wire transfers or even gift cards.
If your utility company uses an online portal to service payments, get on the computer and verify your balance. Call your provider and confirm whether your account is in good standing.
Jury Duty phone scams also employ similar tactics. Scammers will call pretending to be a local sheriff or marshal and inform the victim that they have failed to show up for jury duty. They will then demand a ‘fee’ in lieu of going to jail.
While shirking jury duty can result in serious consequences, local law enforcement will not call to demand payment. If you are unsure about missed jury duty, hang up and contact your municipal courthouse.
Awards, Cruises & Hotel Package Scams
Award scams have the most in common with telemarketing and can often be confused for the latter. They usually begin with a robocall informing the victim that they won an “all expenses paid” cruise or a resort package from a mainstream hotel chain.
The catch: you have to “redeem” your vacation by verifying your name or giving your credit card information. These phone scams may also pretend to offer sweepstakes from your local radio station or favorite shopping mall.
How Can You Look Up Unsafe Phone Numbers?
On occasion it can be difficult to discern whether the call is a fake. If you are worried that you might be missing out on a genuine award you can use Spokeo’s Reverse Phone Lookup to conduct a back search. Within minutes you may be able to determine both the phone owner’s identity and location. If the results are unclear, hang up immediately.
Of all the common phone scams out there, ‘Award’ scams are the most likely to call repeatedly and frequently. They often use different numbers and spoof local area codes. They can be frustrating and clog up your phone line unnecessarily. If you are getting repeated calls use the FTC Consumer Complaint Center to report the number. You can include any information that you discovered during your Spokeo phone lookup.
You can also list your number on the National Do Not Call Registry. Unfortunately this will not thwart the vast majority of phone scams, nor will it prevent you from being targeted by marketing robocalls using spoofed numbers.
Remember: exercise caution when answering the phone. The best strategy is self-defense. Don’t take a chance of finding out whether the robocall will lead you to a phone scam or a telemarketer. It isn’t worth the risk.