Home Advice & How-ToGuides What is Caller ID Spoofing? How to Trace a Fake Phone Number
Home Advice & How-ToGuides What is Caller ID Spoofing? How to Trace a Fake Phone Number

What is Caller ID Spoofing? How to Trace a Fake Phone Number

by Fred Decker

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 Caller ID “spoofing,” and it sharply improves the chances of a scam working.  

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from getting tricked by a scammer using Caller ID spoofing, and how to trace a fake phone number to get to the bottom of who is trying to scam you.  

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Table of Contents

How Caller ID Spoofing Works

Caller ID’s arrival was a real problem for users like the police or collection agencies because people don’t necessarily want to answer those calls.  The first version of call-spoofing was created specifically for users like them, and it required the phone company to install a special type of digital network connection called an ISDN PRI (Integrated Services Digital Network Primary Rate Interface).  Its cost, and the necessity of a direct connection to the phone company, meant that it wasn’t a practical option for scammers. 

As telephone systems became increasingly computerized, it became possible for software-based apps (or even just a website interface) to route calls into the telephone system.  Since those software solutions aren’t connected to the system in the same way a physical landline phone is, they’re able to simply provide their own Caller ID information (which made call spoofing both easy and cheap).  Also, many phone companies big and small now use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for their calling, and VoIP also allows users to set their own Caller ID information.

It’s important to stress that this is perfectly legitimate, up to a point.  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.  Even spoofing — showing a number that’s not your own — is legal as long as it’s not done with the deliberate intention of harming or defrauding someone. 

Unfortunately, that’s not how scammers roll. 

How To Spot a Fake Phone Number

Unfortunately, scammers can also do this for less legitimate reasons.  They can appear to call you from:

  • What appears to be a local number (this is called “neighbor spoofing”), which makes it more likely you’ll pick up.
  • The number of a legitimate business or financial institution.  
  • High-impact government numbers, such as the IRS, the Social Security Administration, or the FBI.  

So you’ve just received an alarming text or phone call.  How do you know whether it’s legitimate or caller ID spoofing? 

  • 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 being used right now.  If you get a call that follows one of those known scripts, it’s a big red flag. 
  • Consider 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 pressure you into an immediate response.  
  • Callers wanting you to provide them with personal information are invariably scams; legitimate businesses and government agencies avoid doing that (precisely because of the clear potential for abuse). 
  • Callers demanding payment in a specific, hard-to-refund form — wire transfers, gift cards, cryptocurrency, etc. — are always scammers. 
  • The name and number don’t match.  Sometimes scammers don’t have the correct number for a given person or company, so they just use the correct name and a number from the right area code. If the name is right but the number’s wrong, that’s a red flag. 
person receiving suspected caller ID spoofed call

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 supposed 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. 

Catch Caller ID Spoofing with Spokeo’s Phone Reputation Score 

One relatively recent addition to Spokeo’s reverse phone lookup feature — the Phone Reputation Score — can also help you identify if a call is coming from a spoofed number.  When you search for a number, this feature (you’ll find it in its own box on the results screen) 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 their 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 — a good indicator of spam.  We also take users’ comments and opinions on whether their experiences with particular phone numbers are spam or fraud into account, and analyze them to determine if a call is coming from a suspicious number (so if it happens to you, please let us know!). If you use an Android phone, you can also install the Spokeo app and link it to your account here.


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.  If the scammer is US-based (and careless), Spokeo’s search results may bring back:

  •  A name and a general location
  • A physical address. 
  • Other associated phone numbers and identifiable public 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. It won’t always work — a lot of scammers are based overseas — but it’s worth a shot. 

If Your Own Phone Number Has Been Spoofed

There’s one more fake phone number scenario 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.


TwinState Technologies: What is Primary Rate Interface (PRI)?

Better Business Bureau: “Neighbor Spoofing” Is a Common Type of Phone Scam

US Federal Communications Commission: Caller ID Spoofing

US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Common Scams and Crimes

US Federal Bureau of Investigation: FBI Warns of Scammers Spoofing FBI Phone Number in Government Impersonation Fraud

US Federal Communications Commission: Consumer Inquiries and Complaint Center

US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)