By Pam Reiss
Your phone is probably ringing a lot more than you would like it to, and often, you have no idea who is calling. We recently talked about how to deal with the annoying sales and marketing calls (phone spam) that we’re all being bombarded with. But, there’s another big problem that can be an even bigger nuisance: phone scams. These calls come from criminals looking to prey on unsuspecting victims to get money, information, or both. There are many different scams going on at all times and they leverage fear, compassion, or simply ignorance to get people to give them information.
Threats, prizes, special promotions are some of the more common tactics scammers use:
- Debt collection agencies demanding payment;
- Social Security Administration representatives saying there is an issue with your Social Security number;
- Lottery scams claiming you’ve won a big prize but need to provide personal information or pay the taxes on your winning;
- Arrest threats from scammers impersonating the IRS other federal entities;
- Charities looking for funding, especially after a natural disaster or other crisis;
- Tech support calls claiming you have a virus or other problem with your laptop or other device, asking you to let them log into your machine remotely.
Currently, there are also many COVID-19 scams circulating, with callers offering masks or sanitizer, testing services, work-from-home opportunities, debt consolidation, or loan repayment plans. Other scammers are claiming to be with contact tracing services and may tell you there’s an outbreak in your area.
The most important thing to understand if you answer the phone is to never give out any personal information to anyone you don’t know. That includes things as simple as confirming your name, address, email, or any other information. Every piece of information you provide, regardless of how irrelevant it may be, is likely to be added to a growing file that scammers piece together and can use or sell to other scammers. Realize that legitimate organizations aren’t going to call you and ask for sensitive information.
There are really two good options for handling calls from people you don’t know.
The first is in situations when you answer the phone and realize it’s not someone you know. Hang up immediately. That’s the easiest way to avoid giving away any information. Don’t engage callers, don’t threaten them, don’t even speak to them. Once you start talking, they realize you are not only willing to answer the phone, but will engage them, which is yet another valuable piece of information. Don’t even follow prompts to push certain buttons, and do not return single-ring calls.
If you think it may have been a legitimate call from your bank or some other organization, call them – not the number that just called you, but look up their main number – and find out if the call was real. Legitimate callers won’t mind that you are taking extra precautions.
The other solution many people have started using is to simply not answer the phone if they don’t know the number or it’s not in their phone’s contact list. Even if you think you might know the number, realize that scammers can easily spoof local numbers to make people think a friend is calling them. In most cases, friends, family, and other legitimate callers will leave a message and you can call them back. By not answering, you’re not even providing the small bit of data that you are likely to answer a call – which is valuable information to scammers.
You can also use technology to help. Your home and mobile phone providers offer tools to help identify or block unwanted calls. Check with your provider to see what options are available. Most mobile providers have free and paid versions of call filtering apps that can help protect you.
If you do receive a scam call, you should also report it to the FCC. How much information you provide is up to you, but the more information you are able to give, the more detail the FTC has to analyze complaint data and identify and react to ongoing scams and identify the individuals behind them.
Scammers count on their victims not being smart enough to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. Understanding the tactics scammers use and the ways they try to get information from you can help your identity and your money, and help avoid having to deal with recovering funds (which may not always even be possible) and identity theft.