Home Advice & How-ToGuides From “Unknown Caller” to Outright Scam: Understanding Caller ID Messages
Home Advice & How-ToGuides From “Unknown Caller” to Outright Scam: Understanding Caller ID Messages

From “Unknown Caller” to Outright Scam: Understanding Caller ID Messages

by Fred Decker

What’s your gut reaction when you hear your phone ring?  Is it hope that one of your family or friends has called or eye-rolling resignation at the thought of sending  yet another spammy (and potentially fraudulent) robocall to voicemail? If you fall into the second category, don’t be too discouraged.  That unknown caller isn’t necessarily coming from a robo dialer, and recent legislation has made it easier to weed out potential spam calls.  

Those upgraded protections include updated caller ID messages. Along with the familiar “unknown caller” and “no caller ID” messages, you’ll now sometimes see incoming calls labeled as “Scam Likely.” Here’s how your provider’s caller ID system differentiates between those incoming calls, why they say what they say, and what you can do about them if necessary. 

How Caller ID Works

Caller ID works in a couple of different ways, depending where the call comes from.  If it’s an old-fashioned landline phone attached to a copper wire phone line, the caller’s phone company displays the name and number that are attached to that account.  It’s pretty straightforward. 

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It’s different for calls originating on mobile phones, computerized dialers or phones using internet (“Voice over Internet Protocol” or VoIP) calling, which is how modern “landline” phones typically work.  In those cases either the originating caller, or the caller’s service provider, attaches a name and number to the outgoing call.  Ordinarily, those will be consistent for any call from that account. 

When the call comes in, your service provider looks up the name and number in one of the many calling-name services (CNAMs), which — like the big credit-reporting agencies — each maintain their own proprietary database.  Those databases aren’t integrated with each other, so it can sometimes take weeks for a newly created account to show up across multiple CNAMs. 

Caller ID Messages You May See

Most of the time this system works well, but it is possible for callers to defeat the caller ID system in multiple ways.  This can result in calls that place limited, or even misleading, information on your display.  Here’s a quick look at some of the things you’ll see and what they mean.

Numbers that Are Deliberately Blocked

If someone has deliberately blocked their Caller ID information from showing, your display may show a message that says “Restricted,” “No Caller ID,” “Private Number,” “Private Caller” or something along those lines.  You won’t see the actual phone number. 

Number that’s not in CNAM

In some cases, the CNAM your phone provider uses for number lookup may simply not have the Caller ID information yet for your caller.  In those cases you may also see a “No Caller ID” message, though the number will typically display.  You may also see “Unknown Caller.” 

Caller who’s not in Your Contacts

On your mobile phone, Caller ID provides the incoming number, which is then checked against your contacts list.  For callers in your contacts, it will display at least the contact’s name and — if you’ve set it up to do so — potentially show you their picture, or play a custom ringtone linked to that caller.  If the caller isn’t in your contacts, you may see just the number or an “unknown caller” message depending on the make and model of your phone, its OS or your cellular provider. 

Calls Showing “Valid Number”

A piece of recent legislation known formally as the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, and popularly as “that robocall bill,” required phone service providers to adopt better technology for vetting Caller ID.  That technology is just becoming mainstream in 2021, though big carriers like Verizon and AT&T started phasing it in back in 2019.  It’s a system based on digital certificates, somewhat like the one that identifies legitimate websites.  An incoming call that says “Valid Number,” or something similar, has been explicitly validated this way. 

Calls Showing “Fraud” or “Potential Scam”

Calls that can’t be validated through that system will sometimes display on your Caller ID with a warning that says they’re fraudulent or a “Potential Scam.”  Failing validation doesn’t automatically mean you’re getting a scam call, because this new technology is still being rolled out and a lot of legitimate calls can’t be validated.  Also, a lot of nuisance calls are legitimate — if annoying — under the law.  The “fraud” or “scam” warnings are applied only when there are other red flags involved, like the call originating from an area code (or service provider) that’s known to generate high volumes of bogus calls. 

Beware of Spoofed Caller ID

It’s also important to remember that despite the new legislation, malicious callers can still “spoof” the Caller ID system to make your phone display inaccurate or misleading information.  That’s a weakness in the system, but it is — as they say — “a feature, not a bug,” because there are plenty of legitimate reasons to change how the caller’s Caller ID displays. 

Imagine you’re a dentist and the formal name of your company is 123456789Missouri, Inc., or Blank Professional Services, LLC.  Confirming your patients’ appointments by phone would be a slow process if you couldn’t have the display show “Happy Smile Dental” instead.  Similarly, a large office might have 40 individual lines, each with their own direct number, but displays the main switchboard number on your Caller ID because that’s more appropriate for any return calls. 

Of course, scammers have subverted that legitimate feature for their own crooked purposes (because that’s basically how they roll).  They’ll game the system to show you Caller ID information that makes it more likely you’ll pick up the phone and increase the chances you’ll fall for their scam. 

Specific Spoofed-Caller ID Scams

Scammers tend to stick with a handful of common, tried-and-true schemes that have been proven to work well, so it’s relatively easy to spot them once you know what to look for.  A handful of these “greatest hits” include: 

“Neighbor” Scams

The incoming number appears to come from your local area, which increases the likelihood you’ll pick it up (maybe it’s your kids’ school or that new neighbor you haven’t properly met yet). 

Bank/Credit Card Scams

The caller pretends to be from your bank or credit card company, and the Caller ID agrees.  The scam is that there has been an overdrawn account, a bounced check or the usefully generic “suspicious activity.”  If you fall for it, you’ll be tricked into making a bogus repayment or divulging personal information they’ll use to steal your identity or pillage your accounts. 

IRS Scams

The same basic idea, except the caller pretends to be calling from the IRS.  The caller takes a menacing tone, threatening dire consequences if you don’t settle up over a bogus problem with your taxes. 

Law Enforcement Scams

Yet another variation on the same theme, except this time the caller pretends to be from your local or state police or possibly even the FBI

Social Security Scams

This version of the spoofed-ID scam is especially cynical, because it primarily targets the elderly.  There’s a “carrot” version of the scam (“You may be entitled to increased benefits”) and a “stick” version (“Your SSN has been used in the commission of a crime and an arrest warrant has been issued…”). 

“You’re a Winner!” Scams

Rather than trying to panic you into taking action, these scams appeal to greed.  The come-on is usually that for opaque reasons you’ve “won” or “been selected to receive” a valuable prize — perhaps money or a cruise, or the latest unobtainable gaming console — and you juuuust need to give them your banking information so they can direct-deposit the money, or perhaps you need to pay a shipping/handling fee, or…something. 

Protecting Yourself From Scam Calls

Though the technology is improving and the new legislation has better tools for prosecuting scammers and their enablers, scam (and nuisance) calls won’t go away any time soon.  It’ll get a bit harder for the scammers, but for them it’s just the cost of doing business.  Your best protection is educating yourself and knowing how to handle the calls when they come in. 

Unmask and Block Callers

You can use a variety of tools to do this, from your phone provider’s *69 (or #69 on a cell phone) callback feature to specialized apps, like Spokeo’s, which can unmask unknown callers (and often block them in future). 

File Reports with the Authorities

Once you have unmasked the phone number, you can use Spokeo’s people search tools to look up who they are and where they’re calling from.  Whether you report it to the FCC as a robocall or nuisance call, or as a scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, that information can help speed the investigation. 

Don’t Play the Game

This is really the biggest weapon in your arsenal.  When you get a bogus call, just hang up.  Don’t engage, don’t give them any information and don’t for a moment believe their story.  Your bank and credit card company, the IRS, SSA and FBI are all unanimous on this point:  That’s not how they operate (and they especially don’t take payment by gift cards). 

Caller ID is a useful tool, and it will get better over time, but technology and law enforcement will always be one step behind the fertile, never-failing ingenuity of the scammers.  Your own willingness to stay educated about scams, and skeptical about the calls you receive, is ultimately what will keep you safe.