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What Are Phone Scams?

Phone scams are deceitful acts perpetrated using phone services with the intention to steal money, personal information, or anything of value from unsuspecting victims. Phone scammers use different telephone technologies and services to find possible targets and convince them to hand over valuables. They can contact and defraud these individuals via live calls, robocalls, and text messages.

Scammers are also quick to embrace new phone technologies. For example, they use Voice of Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone services to save on phone bills, hide their identities, and spoof their targets’ caller IDs. Regardless of the communication method used, scammers make false promises to their victims. They promise free gifts, attractive rewards, lottery winnings, rare investment opportunities, employment, low-cost products and services, credit repair, immediate help during emergencies, and protection from would-be hackers, computer viruses, and scammers.

Phone scams are so prevalent in the country and the number of reported scams keeps rising. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received over 400,000 complaints of phone scams in 2020. The Commission also calculated that the average amount lost to a phone scam in 2020 is $1,170. A growing number of phone scammers are also outside the US. These take advantage of the ease of obtaining US phone numbers or spoofing theirs to show up as numbers issued by American carriers.

Depending on the phone scam and intended target, a scammer may appear polite and helpful or use aggressive sales tactics and threats to force compliance. Scammers are known to threaten vulnerable individuals with deportation, lawsuit, imprisonment, repossession, and tax audits. The key to avoiding phone scams is recognizing them and learning about tricks commonly used by scammers. While there are endless variations of different scams, they share similar traits.

How to Recognize Phone Scams

While clever, phone scammers are constrained by their goal to defraud and steal valuable information. There are only so many ways to ask someone to send money or provide confidential information without making them suspicious. Scammers prey on the ignorance and confidence of their victims. While some are oblivious of the tricks used in these schemes, others are certain they can never be victims. It is prudent to remain vigilant and look out for the following tell-tale signs of phone scams:

Pressure to make an immediate decision - Phone scammers offer lucrative deals are quick to close such deals. They hurry their targets along to give them no time to closely scrutinize the vague terms of the deals or consult other people who may know better. Legitimate businesses do not pressure potential customers or investors to make commitments on the spot. They give them time to consider the offers on the table and even provide additional resources to help them make their decisions.

Overt threats from law enforcement and other authority figures - Scammers impersonating law enforcement officers or employees of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) get their targets to make hasty ill-informed decisions by threatening them with arrest, deportation, and fines. Real law enforcement, federal, and state agencies do not call to threaten residents and do not try to scare them to obtain money and information.

Unsolicited confirmation calls from reputable organizations - Scammers employing this method often claiming to be working for the IRS or the Social Security Administration. They demand their targets call out their Social Security numbers to confirm them. Besides government agencies, scammers also impersonate private organizations. The most commonly impersonated ones are financial institutions, technology companies, and utility companies. Scammers call their targets and pretend to be agents of these organizations. They claim to require their targets to confirm pieces of information in their records. Information provided during such calls are used for identity theft.

Prize and free gifts you have to pay for - Anyone calling you to offer free gifts and prizes should also be responsible for getting them to you. If you have to pay for tax and shipping for these items, then they are no longer free. Beware of unknown callers asking for money before sending you a gift or prize you supposedly won.

Fuzzy details about the terms of the offer presented - Phone scammers intentionally keep the details of the deals, opportunities, or services they offer vague. This is to make their lies less elaborate and more believable. However, by asking relevant questions, it is easy to determine that a scam caller knows little or nothing about the thing they are offering.

Caller switching phone numbers for each communication - A stranger calling from a different phone number every time they contact you is most likely a scammer. Switching phone numbers is a red flag. Scammers switch numbers to make it harder to trace, identify, and trace them. They may also be calling with VoIP applications that randomly assigns phone numbers to callers using free tiers of their services or demoing their services. Scammers switch numbers to avoid getting caught as call-blocking and reverse phone number lookup services blacklist numbers frequently used for scam calls.

Payment via unofficial channels - Phone scammers avoid taking payments via official channels because money sent through these means are easy to trace back to recipients. A government official or law enforcement agent asking that you pay a fine by wiring money, with a prepaid card or gift card, or via a money transfer app, is most definitely an impersonator and a scammer.

What Are Common Phone Scams?

The types of phone scams that are common vary from state to state. Overall, the 10 commonly reported phone scams recorded by the FTC are:

Charity Scams

These involve scammers calling on behalf of real or made-up charities and asking for donations. When scammers impersonate real charities, they make sure to employ caller ID spoofing. This requires making their names and phone numbers appear on their targets’ caller IDs as the real charities they are impersonating. To increase their chances of success, scammers find out the charities their targets previously donated to and impersonate them. When they try this scam with fake charities, phone scammers use names that sound similar to popular charities you may have heard of or know. Scammers exploiting charities pressure their targets to make immediate donations.

Debt Relief and Credit Repair Scams

These scams target individuals with huge debts and bad credits. These scammers also target those with outstanding student loans. Offering debt relief and credit repair is almost always a scam. The only ways to repair credit and improve your credit score is to repay outstanding credit card debts and demonstrate that you can reliably pay them in the future. Anyone asking for a fee to forgive your debt, restore your credit rating, or forgive your student loan is a scammer. Sending payment to such individuals does nothing to relieve your debt or improve your credit.

Loan Scams

Loan scams also target people with poor credit histories. Scammers running this con promise their victims quick loans or credit cards for small fees. These advance fee loan scams never deliver on their promises. Desperate individuals signing up and paying for quick loans end up losing the money sent to secure them. No legitimate lender would give a loan to someone with little chance of repaying. These include between with no or bad credit. Deceitful lenders may provide loans for no advance fees but charge high interest rates that end up leaving their victims deeper in debt.

Business Offer and Investment Scams

The scams promise their victims help with starting a new business or offer investment opportunities with claimed high returns. Scammers using these techniques target inexperienced individuals starting their own business. They may promise everything from mentorship and securing loans to guaranteed patronage for some fees. The scammers may claim the ability to expand their targets’ business networks and give them access to investors. Some scammers offer business opportunities to those wishing to be entrepreneurs or investments. However, they stop communicating with their victims after getting paid. Be wary of cold calls offering business and investment opportunities.

Free Trial and Product Subscription Scams

In these scams, scammers attract their victims with offers of free trials. These can be free trials of products or services. Those that sign up for such offers then learn that they are locked in after the free trial periods elapsed. Products offered under free trial scams range from edibles and magazines to computer software and streaming services. These free trial offers often contain briefly mentioned locked-in clauses or hidden charges. They may require those taking advantage to opt out at a certain time or be locked in.

Victims of free trial and product subscription scams only learn about them when they receive their credit card bills and find deductions they did not approve. It can be very difficult to unsubscribe from free-trial lock ins. During the period that the victim is locked in, they will be paying for products and services they no longer use or wish to keep.

Prize and Lottery Scams

Scammers running these cons call their targets and inform them that they have won prizes or selected in lotteries. In most cases, the promised prizes are from competitions the victims have not heard of and did not enter. While delivering their news, these scammers ask the winners to pay some nominal fees for registration, tax, or shipping. They hope that in their excitement to receive the prize or lottery money, the targets would realize how absurd their claims are. Lottery scammers often like to tell their targets that they won foreign lotteries. This is because it is harder to verify the winners of foreign lotteries and whether those lotteries are real.

Vacation and Timeshare Scams

Vacation scams involve promises of free and low-cost travels to exotic locations. Scammers usually claim to offer huge savings on vacations to the Caribbean islands. In some of these scams, victims are not aware of hidden costs until they arrive at their destinations. To provide low-cost options, these scammers may fail to make hotel reservations or book basic accommodations. In another variant of the scam, a victim is offered free vacation but told to pay a small amount to sign up for the offer. After paying, they will realize that there is no vacation.

Timeshare scams usually involve offers to resell victims’ unused timeshares. Scammers promise good prices for these and claim they have buyers ready to claim the timeshares. However, they ask their victims to pay them first for services rendered. Once they get payment, they stop communicating with their victims.

Health Care Scams

There are different types of health care scams. The most common of these include health insurance scams, medical discount scam, Medicare card scams, and COVID-19 scams. In a health insurance scam, the scammer claims to be an insurance agent and asks the target to act quickly to take advantage of a special deal on insurance rates or to beat a deadline for registration. In medical discount scam, the scammer offers discounts on health services and products to help the victim enjoy lower prices at participating clinics and pharmacies.

Medicare card scam starts with someone calling to ask that you get a new card to avoid losing your Medicare coverage. They may request payment for this or offer to get you a new card for free but require personal information such as Social Security Number and credit card details.

COVID-19 scams begin appearing following the coronavirus pandemic. Scammers calling their targets promise everything from test kits to vaccines for certain fees. They often claim to be part of state and federal government health teams responsible for these items. These scammers prey on their targets’ fear of the pandemic and on their wish to get ahead of the queues for test kits, treatments, and vaccines.

In all of these scams, the scammers disappear after getting paid and do not provide the medical services or products promised. Health care scammers that steal their victims’ information may end up doing greater damage. They strip victims of healthcare coverage and may even steal their identities by using or selling their Social Security numbers and credit card information.

Tech Support Scams

Tech support scams involve providing unsolicited tech support to computer users. Scammers claiming to be representatives of big tech firms call their targets and warn of impending computer malfunctions while promising help. They scare unsuspecting computer users about viruses and other malware infesting their system. The scammers may then sell costly and needless computer security software to their victims or charge for needless repairs.

Some cases of tech support scams are even more insidious. In such cases, scammers ask for remote access to their victims’ computers. When granted, they may then remotely install malware on these computers. Such malware may steal confidential records such as passwords and credit card information saved on those computers. The scammer can also install ransomware on the victim’s computer and lock them out of their own files until they pay demanded amounts.

Emergency Scams

Emergency scams usually target the elderly. Scammers deploying emergency scams often call older residents and claim to be their grandkids. They also claim to be in urgent need of financial help to get out of sticky situations. Sometimes, a scammer employing this method claims to be a law enforcement agent, attorney, or someone else helping the loved one get out of trouble. Emergency scammers ask their victims not to share their plights with other family members to avoid embarrassment. Victims that agree to this may be scammed repeatedly.

How Do I Avoid Becoming a Victim of a Phone Scam?

With the huge number of scam calls and robocalls reaching Americans, it is impossible to avoid phone scammers. However, you can definitely avoid becoming a victim. The key to achieving this is staying vigilant.

The first step to take is to stop taking robocalls and hanging up on them. If a call does not connect you to a live operator, hang up immediately. Do not believe robocall prompts that ask you to press certain numbers to speak to live operators or stop getting robocalls. These prompts only serve to confirm that your number is active and you are open to receiving robocalls.

It is important that you add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry. If your state has a Do Not Call List, join that too. Putting your number on these registries will not stop all robocalls. It will definitely not stop scam calls. However, you can safely ignore robocalls after you join these registries as these are likely from scammers and telemarketers willing to break the law.

When receiving live calls or robocalls, do not trust your phone’s caller ID to provide accurate caller information. Scammers routinely use caller ID spoofing to impersonate trustworthy organizations. Even if your caller ID shows a name or number you can trust, look out for signs of phone scams when taking calls from strangers.

Consider using call blocking to filter incoming calls. This feature is available on phones, from carriers, and from mobile apps. You can set your phone to block calls from anyone not in your contact list or to block calls from numbers reportedly used for phone scams.

The FTC advises checking out charities before donating to them. You may check if the charity claimed by the caller is a real one by searching for it on any of the following websites: Charity Navigator, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and CharityWatch. Some states do have specific departments that verify and regulate charities. The National Association of State Charity Officials provides a handy resource for contacting the watchdog unit for each state.

When sending a donation to a charity, never agree to pay by wiring money or sending gift cards. Legitimate charities only accept checks and credit cards. Other questions to ask include whether your donation is tax-deductible and how much of your donation goes to the charity.

What to Do After Falling for a Scam?

If you sent money to a scammer, it may still be possible to reverse the payment and reclaim your money. However, this is only possible with certain payment methods. Furthermore, you must act as soon as you realize you have been scammed.

If you paid with a credit card, contact the credit card company and request a chargeback. This may be possible if the transaction has been completed and if the credit card company believes your claim. Reversing payments sent by gift cards, cash reload cards, and prepaid cards is harder but possible if you contact the card-issuing company early. Reversing payments with wire transfer and money transfer apps also have low chances of success but needs to be requested.

If you gave a phone scammer your username and password, change this as quickly as possible. Make sure to also change the password for services linked to the source of breach. If you use the password on other services, change it there too.

If you allowed a scammer remote access to your computer, get a reputable security software or update the one installed on the device. Run a full system check and remove all malware found after the scan.

When scammers steal Social Security numbers, they use them for identity thefts. Changing a Social Security number is hard. Therefore, the best course of action after giving out your SSN to a scammer is to monitor its activity for misuse. The FTC provides a website to report and limit the damage caused by stolen SSNs.

How Do I Report Phone Scams?

Report all phone scam attempts whether successful or not. You can report them to the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or go to ftc.gov/complaint to report phone scams to the FTC.

The FCC is the federal agency responsible for regulating all communications in the US. Its duties also include taking reports of phone spams and crimes committed using phone services. You can report caller ID spoofing to the FCC online.

States also have consumer protection agencies that protect residents from unscrupulous businesses. If you believe you have been a victim of a business, investment, free trial, vacation, or lottery scam, report it to your state’s consumer protection agency. You can find the contact information for these here.