Caller ID was a revolutionary technology (and an introvert’s dream!) when it arrived back in the 1980s. For the first time you could tell who was calling without answering the phone, giving you the power to judge for yourself whether that call was a priority right at that minute.
Unsurprisingly, now that people have come to trust caller ID, scam artists are leveraging it to their advantage by hijacking it to display incorrect numbers. That tactic is called “spoofing,”and it sharply improves the chances of a scam working. Tracing a spoofed phone number isn’t easy, unless you have access to specialized search tools.
How Phone Number Spoofing Works
If you’re a fan of old movies, you’ll remember seeing telephone operators manually connecting calls by physically plugging cords into different spots on a switchboard. That system was replaced with mechanical switches, which in turn gave way to modern computerized systems.
Computer-based systems provide the data that’s used to generate caller ID, and they’re designed to allow callers to alter that information for legitimate reasons. That’s how a company with thousands of locations around the world can show one easy-to-remember toll-free number when they call you, for example. It’s also how a doctor or insurance broker can have your phone display the office number, even when they’re calling you from their personal cell phone.
Unfortunately, scammers can also do this for less legitimate reasons. They can call you from what appears to be a local number (this is called “neighbor spoofing”) or the number of a legitimate business or financial institution. They may even spoof high-impact government numbers, so the call appears to come from the IRS, the Social Security Administration or the Census Bureau.
How To Tell if a Phone Number Is Spoofed
So you’ve just received an alarming text or phone call. How do you know whether it’s legitimate or coming from a scammer armed with a spoofed number?
One way is simply to be informed. A number of government and law enforcement sites, like the FCC’s Caller ID Spoofing page and the FBI’s Common Scams and Crimes page, provide lists and descriptions of common phone-spoofing scams that are known to be active. If you get a call that follows one of those known scripts, it’s a big red flag.
Another giveaway is the caller’s demeanor. Legitimate calls from government agencies (even the FBI or IRS), financial institutions and businesses you deal with won’t usually take a threatening or bullying tone or try to coerce you into immediate action. Callers wanting you to provide them with personal information are invariably scams; legitimate businesses and government agencies avoid doing so in large part because of the potential for abuse.
Spokeo’s newest reverse phone lookup feature – the Phone Reputation Score – can also help you identify if a call is coming from a spoofed number before you pick up. The new feature helps users identify these calls, saving time and protecting users against data or security breaches from scammers by generating a score report for users that gives a simple, helpful phone risk score of Low, Medium, or High. This score is generated using a number of factors, including Spokeo’s users and comments. If we see a burst in unique searches happening around a particular number then it probably means this particular number has been making lots of calls in a short period of time — another good indicator of spam. We also take users’ comments and opinions on whether their experiences with particular phone numbers is spam or fraud into account, and analyze them to determine if a call is coming from a suspicious number.
How To Handle Spoofed Calls or Texts
If you believe you’ve received a call or text from a spoofed number, your first option is simply to not engage: Hang up on the caller or don’t respond to the text. Spoofed texts will often include a link and a demand that you click it — usually to “verify” an account or some such excuse — which is a classic phishing attack. Never click on one of those; instead use a separate browser to go to the site or just call the purported source of the message directly.
With phone calls, another option is to do a bit of fishing yourself and try to get a callback number. Something along the lines of, “I literally can’t talk right now; I’m in the middle of a family emergency. Do you have a direct line?” will often work. If it doesn’t you can simply hang up, but if it does you’ll have a piece of actionable information you can forward to the authorities.
Reach out to your local law enforcement agency with the details, and also file a report with the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Even if the caller isn’t an outright scammer but a sort-of-legitimate business using shady tactics, a recent piece of anti-robocall legislation (the TRACED Act) stiffened the penalties for that kind of behavior.
Tracing a Spoofed Phone Number
You can also do a bit of “citizen sleuthing,” either from a feeling of civic duty or just for your own satisfaction. Law enforcement has a lot more resources at its disposal than you do, but on the other hand they also have heavy caseloads. With just a few minutes and Spokeo’s reverse phone lookup, you can often satisfy yourself that a call or text was spoofed and might also find the caller’s real number or identity.
Start by entering the 10-digit phone number the call purportedly came from. They’re typically legitimate numbers, so your search should turn up results, including if known, the name of the owner. However, you may also see complaints of scam calls from that same number. If so, it’s a sign that the number is being used for spam, possibly with or without the owner’s knowledge .
If they gave you a callback number, search that next. Spokeo’s search results may bring back a name and a location or even a physical address and other associated phone numbers and identifiable information (social media accounts, email addresses and so on). This way, when you reach out to the authorities, you’ll have tangible information to give them.
If Your Phone Number Has Been Spoofed
There’s one more wrinkle to phone-spoofing scams we haven’t touched on yet. What if the scammer has spoofed your number as part of a neighbor-spoofing campaign?
It’s pretty obvious when it happens, because you’ll start getting irate calls, texts and voicemail messages from people you don’t know. Usually they’ll be some variation on, “Why are you calling me?” or, “STOP CALLING/TEXTING ME!”
Don’t take it personally. Let them know your number is being misused, and tell them to just block it on their phone. You may want to change your voicemail message to make the same explanation, so you won’t have to personally speak to quite so many unhappy callers. Scammers typically don’t use a given number for long, so the problem will pass in a few days.
It’s a nuisance while it’s happening, but — if you’re inclined to look for the silver lining — some of those irate messages might be worth saving for their entertainment value.