M4S 060: How Do Phone Scams Work? Avoid Becoming a Victim
Originally published 7/28/2018. Updated 10/11/21.
I want to start this post, How Do Phone Scams Work? Avoid Becoming a Victim, off with a little trivia.
So, here’s your question. What costs 1 out of every 3 American adults an average of $502 each, totaling $29.8 billion per year?
The answer is phone scams.
How Do Phone Scams Work? Well Enough to Bilk $29.8 Billion Out of People!
Yep, phone scams cost the United States over $29.8 billion every year. Worldwide, the amount of money lost on phone scams is just crazy. Now, what is worse is that phone scams are on the rise, and phone scammers are attempting to become more sophisticated.
So, in this podcast, which you can listen to above, I’m going to play you the actual phone scam message that was left for me twice in the past few weeks. That will help you educate others on how to spot these scams and avoid becoming a victim.
Now, as I said, I’ve been targeted at least twice in the past several weeks by phone scams. Usually, if you have good situational awareness going on and are alert, you’ll be able to spot a phone scam when the scumbag scammers target you. But it helps when you understand – how do phone scams work?
Your Phone Rings – Mr. Phone Fraud is Calling
You look down and wonder, “What’s the unknown number that’s calling me?” Hmmm, you don’t know, but don’t want to miss an urgent call, so you answer. That’s the call I received earlier this week. The fact is phone scams are increasing. Not only are phone scams on the rise, but they’re becoming such a problem tha
t the law enforcement community now issues warnings about them regularly.
So, what’s the answer? No matter how cool it would be, we can’t give up our phones and start communicating telepathically with one another. Maybe we can start using carrier pigeons, or with the new technology, carrier drones?
Then again, maybe it’s just easier to adjust our mindset and learn how to defend ourselves against the criminals who prey on the good nature of others.
The #1 Thing to do When a Scammer Calls
The first thing you need to do is relax. Criminals, in this case, the phone scammers, bank on the fact that nervous people tend not to be as cautious as relaxed people. One of the first things to remember when you’re considering “how do phone scams work?” is that they’re going to try to make you nervous and add a sense of urgency to their scam.
So, if someone calls you with what at first sounds to be bad news, relax and avoid getting upset and sucked into the scam. Think about it like this: if a stranger called you and politely asked for $500, what are the chances you’d give it to them? That’s why the phone scammers try to make the call sound urgent or an emergency.
An excellent way to shift your mindset to help you relax when answering the phone is to accept that any incoming call could be someone committing phone fraud. With that, the likelihood of a call
being a scam goes up exponentially if the person on the other end asks you for personally identifiable information, also known as PII.
How Do Phone Scams Work? They Want Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
Often, when asking for your PII, phone scammers will add in that sense of urgency to make you nervous with the hope you’ll give up your information. Also, the person committing phone fraud may ask you to confirm some information that they know, as in when a company representative will ask you to provide the last four of your social security number for security reasons. It’s always good to remember that it’s easy to be manipulated, so you have to pay attention and maintain your situational awareness.
How do phone scams work if you mistakenly give your PII to the scammer? They can use it for things like opening bank accounts, applying for loans and credit cards, renting property, purchasing cars, etc., in your name. One easy-to-play tactic that defeats phone fraud is hanging up and looking up the information for the organization the phone scammer said they were calling from. Then, determine if you think the call was legitimate or not. If you think it was legitimate, call the customer service number for the organization if it was an organization you are familiar with. If not, do some more research and look into it before calling and giving anyone your information.
How Do Phone Scams Work? 9 Ways to Thwart Them
The best way to avoid being scammed by phone fraud, it to not get calls from the phone scammers in the first place. You can use many ways to help limit the number of calls that you receive from scammers.
Be careful about to whom you give your phone number. Once you give your phone number out online or to a company, you run the risk of telemarketers and phone scammers getting a hold of it. So, watch who you give it out to and possibly consider a second number, like a Skype number, that you can use to give out to anyone who may be open to selling your phone number.
Sign-up for Silence
Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry, which you can do by going to DoNotCall.gov. The do-not-call registry has its limitations, and you may still get calls, but it’s one step that may provide you with some relief from unwanted marketing calls and phone scammers. Now, if you still receive calls a month or more after signing up on the Do Not Call Registry, go ahead and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Consumer Complaint Center at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov or by calling the FTC at 888-225-5322.
Your phone may also have the ability to block anonymous phone calls. If your phone doesn’t have the option, give a call to your phone provider, and they may be able to help you. Block unknown numbers lets you screen out callers who block their phone numbers, which is often a strategy of telemarketers and phone scammers.
Block the Bums
If you continuously receive calls from the numbers, go ahead and block them. Some phones can block incoming numbers built into the phone itself, while others don’t. If your phone can’t block numbers, do a Google search because there are various apps and other services out there that will help block calls or avoid the calls you don’t want to deal with, like phone scammers.
Pay for Silence
Another way to stop calls is to sign up for a third-party service like Nomorobo. Services like Nomorobo uses blacklisting software to identify robocalls and phone fraud calls and block the numbers from calling any of the phones on its network. Nomorobo isn’t expensive at $1.99 per month for cell phones and entirely free for landlines. You know, telephones, those old antiques that everyone used before switching over the handheld attention-sucking contraptions so many people have glued to the hands all day. Other similar apps are Truecaller, Privacy Star, and HiYa, all of which will have a link in the show notes at mind4survival.com/60.
No One’s Home, Please Leave a Message
Practice your situational awareness and check the caller ID when your phone rings. It’s straightforward—your phone rings. You look at it and see a number you don’t recognize. Then, rather than answer it, you let it go to voicemail. How do you think I got a copy of the call that I played earlier? Usually, if it’s a telemarketer, they’ll hang up and wait to call you back when you’re eating dinner, in the shower, or are in the middle of your favorite movie. If it’s not a telemarketer and the person making the call wants to speak with you, they’ll leave a message.
Punt the Pause
If, after you answer your phone, you hear a silent pause, hang up. A pause after answering is often a sign that the person on the other end is a computer making a robocall.
Pass on the Push
Should you answer the phone and hear a robocall start, which could be a phone fraud call, hang up. DO NOT push any buttons. I repeat, DO NOT push any buttons, even if the recording on the other end tells you to do. When you push a button, the electronic tone it sends lets the jackwagons on the other end know they hit a live number. Then, when that happens, “Katy, bar the door!” Because once the computer auto dialer detects that a number is a live number, it gets logged in the system, and BOOM, your phone may become a non-stop ringing service that will drive you and the NSA nuts!
Dive into the Directory
Once you have avoided a possible robocall, open your browser to Google or WhitePages.com and enter the number that called you into the search bar. Often, you’ll find a robocall number or a phone fraud number is listed on the internet and may even have some discussion about it so you will be able to increase your situational awareness about the phone number calling you.
How Do Phone Scams Work? Some Common Tactics
It’s great to use the defensive measures we went over. However, as we all know, no plan is 100% guaranteed to work. So, you need to be ready if you end up on the phone with a scammer. To be prepared, you need to know about as many possible phone scammer tactics as possible. This is why you need to know how phone scams work. That way, when you hear the phone scammer start their pitch, you can hang up and shut them down.
Yank the Yes
Never, ever, ever say the word “YES” to an unidentified caller. Instead, if you want to be polite, say, “May I ask who’s calling?” or you can simply ask, “What do you want?” The trick the phone scammer is trying to pull is to get you to say the word “YES” to a simple question. They want you to say “YES” because they record the call and edit your yes response as an answer into another recording that you never hear. That recording asks if you agree to accept charges for some random service or whatever else they can come up with to take your money.
Not saying yes is not as easy as it sounds. That’s because we are so accustomed to being polite and answering people’s questions. Even questions from people we don’t know. Have you ever had someone call and say, “Hi, am I speaking with insert your name here?” So, in my case, the call comes in, and the person says, “Hi, am I speaking with Brian?” Our immediate response is to answer yes.
Oops, Wrong Name
Another tactic the phone scammers use is calling and asking if they’re talking to some random name. So, for example, you answer the phone, and the person on the other end says, “Hi, is this Joe Smith?” Then your response is to answer “no.” Next, once you’ve given them your big fat “no,” they sound confused and ask, “Is your number blah-blah-blah” repeating your number to you, remember, since they called you, they have your phone number.
Then, since you’re now engaged in a conversation with them, you’re often not as on guard and wanting to do the right thing and be helpful. You tell them, “Yes, that’s my number.” Once you say that, the next thing you’ll hear is a click as the phone scammer hangs up. After hanging up, they’ll start editing your “Yes” answer into an impressive recording of you saying that you’d like to give Mr. and Mrs. Phone Fraud people all of your money, your life savings, and anything else they can find a way to take from you.
Oh, My Headset is a Mess
Along the same lines, phone scammers use the tactic of calling and asking you to hang on for a second while they adjust their headset. Once they supposedly get their headset adjusted, the person or computer calling you then asks, “Can you hear me now?” To which many people will innocently respond “YES.” Unfortunately, just like before, once you say yes, they have you, and it’s off to the phone fraud races.
With all of these phone fraud tactics, it’s important to remember that the caller on the other end, including automated calls, can sound real. They play on your heart and nervous strings and will use tactics that purposefully try to get you to lower your guard. The voice on the other end may be a young girl or an elderly grandmother-sounding person. So, watch out.
One Ring Bait and Switch
Phone scammers also like to use a bait and switch type of scam. In this scam, the caller calls from a standard, U.S.-looking number and hangs up after one ring. Where the fraud comes in is if you call back to see who called. When you call back, the person on the other end will try to keep you on the phone as long as possible. The reason being, the person on the other end, is in a foreign country, and the call is costing you some serious dollars.
Please Hold On
Similar to the “1 Ring Bait and Switch” is the “Please Hold On” call. In this call, a person from a foreign country will use any number of tactics to get you to call them on a standard U.S. number. One of these tactics is that they call to let you know that a friend or relative is involved in an accident/arrested/etc., and that the doctor/attorney/police officer/etc. I would like for you to call their direct line. Then, when you call that number, the person who answers tells you that they can’t talk, but would you please hold. Once they put you on hold, the call meter continues to run, racking up charges all the way.
Similar to phishing email scams, where the scammer works to have you click on a link that infects your device with a virus so that they can steal your PII. You combat smishing scammers by never clicking on a link from an unknown source. Even if an unsolicited link comes from somewhere that seems legitimate, you should avoid clicking on it. Instead, call the company through a number you have or find. Do not call from the phone number the text came from, and ask if there are any issues or if they sent you the text.
A super happy person calls, letting you know you’ve just won something fabulous, like the lottery. After some back and forth and big congratulations, the person works it in that, to get the winnings to you, you’ll first have to pay the tax on it. Once you do, the bad guy makes off with your “tax” money, and you never see a dime or the trip to the Caribbean the person promised you. Remember, if you don’t enter a contest or play the lottery, the odds of winning are, hmmm…, the odds of winning are about 0 in 1,000,000. In other words, if you don’t enter something, there’s no chance of you winning.
Many of you are grandparents and are probably like my grandmother was. She’d do anything for her grandkids. Well, maybe not share her shot of brandy that she sipped on every day, but which never seemed to go empty. Yeah, Grandma loved her brandy!
So, this scam starts with a call from a phone that sounds like it has a bad connection. The person on the other end that you can barely make out due to the static says, “Grandma/pa, I screwed up and am in serious trouble.” Most likely, sometime during this part of the conversation, the scammer, either due to the static or through other means, will get you to give up the name of one of your grandkids.
They Got a Name, Now What?
After they get a name, the scammer will pass the phone off to a supposed attorney who is there to help out your sweet grandkid. The lawyer will then tell you that your sweet grandchild, Suzy Screw-Up is in a heap of trouble and may going directly to jail, don’t pass go, don’t collect your $200. Fortunately, for little Ms. Suzy Screw-Up, the nice lawyer, knows what to do and who to see to keep your grandchild out of the pokey. You are then told to send an untraceable money order through Western Union or some other similar means. Once you do, poof, your money is gone. Now, if you’re someone who has elderly grandparents, please talk with them. When you do, let them know if they ever receive a call saying one of their grandkids is in jail, to call you before doing anything. Explain to them why so they understand and are prepared when it happens.
Keep the Lights On
How do phone scams work that seem to be officially coming from your utility company? You receive a call from someone claiming to be a representative of a utility company. The person then tells you that your bill is overdue and that your service will be turned off. Once this happens, the call usually goes one of two ways. The first way is that the person calling from the utility company tells you he/she can accept payment over the phone to keep your service going. The second method is that the person says they’re on the way to cut the power and that you can pay when they arrive to avoid a service disruption.
Unfortunately, when they show up, their ability to process credit or debit cards just stopped working, but they can take cash to keep your utilities on. Often this scam is played dependent upon the season. So, if it’s in the middle of a heatwave, the phone scammer may tell you they have to shut off your power and are sorry that the AC will be off, but again, you can pay, and they’ll keep your power on.
Spoofing is not when you set up one of your friends to be the butt of a joke. It is when someone uses software or a spoofing service like SpoofTel or SpoofCard to make their caller ID look like an official phone number. They can make it look like any number, such as the FBI, fire department, local police department, IRS, etc. In fact, spoofing allows spoofers to use the real phone number of the police, fire, IRS, etc. Once they get you on the phone, they often will use various tricks to get money out of you. Heck, sometimes the person spoofing you is just causing you headaches, and when you call the number back, it goes through to the agency that the phone number is really from.
The pop-up scam is also known as the Microsoft scam. This scam comes at you through your computer after it’s infected with a virus from the scammers. Once infected, your computer will lock up, and a pop-up window opens. The window has a phone number to call to get your computer repaired. Now, if you’ve been reading this, you already know the answer to this. The answer is, DON’T CALL THE NUMBER! Instead, call a local and reliable computer repair service. Have them fix the computer and, once ready, stop clicking on the freaking websites!
You’ve Been Google Earthed
This is a scam that uses intimidation. In this case, the scammers hop onto Google Earth and look up your property. Once they find your property, they look for anything that is distinguishing. Then, armed with their new information in an attempt to extort money from you. So, for example, they may notice that you have a red and blue table in the yard. Next, they call you saying that they’re going to throw the cool red and blue table through the window unless you pay them.
Many IRS scams are always going around, especially during tax season. Always remember, the first rule of the anti-phone scam club is, the IRS never calls looking for past-due taxes. The IRS will ALWAYS, I repeat ALWAYS, send you a letter in the mail. They won’t text, send carrier drones, text, call, e-mail, drop a telegram, nothing. The IRS will always send a letter informing you of tax debt or other issues.
So, remember, if anyone from the IRS calls to tell you that you owe money, they are NOT the IRS. If that happens, hang up. Then, if you’re worried and want to make sure the IRS didn’t call, give them a call. When you’re sure you’re talking with the IRS, confirm and make yourself feel better. Remember, don’t forget about spoofing when you look at the phone number calling in.
Mr. and Mrs. Phone Fraud people love to use charities, disasters, etc., as a reason to separate you from your money. The scammers say they’re “XYZ” charity. They’re calling on behalf of all the good people affected by Supervolcano Bob. They’re asking if you would like to make a small donation to help the poor, unfortunate, and ash-covered.
Heck, they may call saying they’re from your local fire or police department. They could call to ask you to help give all officers and firefighters seat massagers. Then their backs will feel fantastic when they come to save your life. When you get calls asking for donations, please do not bite on them and open your wallet or purse. Instead, hop online and research the organization to make sure they’re legit. Also, if the person calling to ask you for money is not a person, but instead, it’s Cyberdyne Systems, T-800 Model 101 Terminator, hang up. Never give cash, your social security number, or any other PII over the phone to an unknown caller.
Can We Help You?
This is a tactic that phone scammers use where they pretend to be tech support. Their ruse is to call to do an update or fix a possible glitch in your computer. Often, this is the type of scam where the scammers try to get your PII from you. They may ask you, for security purposes, to verify some information by answering a couple of questions. Those questions happen to be: “What is your date of birth?” “What is the last four of your social security number?” “What is your mother’s maiden name?”
Never forget, tech support is not going to call you without you first calling them. If you get an unsolicited call from tech support, it’s a scam. Again, when you get a call that sounds legitimate, consider the possibility that the scammers are spoofing their number. It happens so much that people in the U.S. lose over $9 billion each year.
5 Universal Phone Fraud Prevention Truths
- You do NOT have to answer your phone. Regardless of who shows up on your caller ID, there is no mandate that you must answer your phone. You can ignore a phone call or send it to voicemail whenever you choose to.
- There is no law against hanging up on a jackwagon phone fraud scammer. If you have even the slightest suspicion that someone is a scammer, hang up immediately. Don’t engage them. Don’t talk to them. Just hang up.
- Block the number. Whenever you suspect a call is from a scammer, block the phone number immediately after the call. If you don’t, there’s a chance they will continue to call back.
- Landlines get scammer calls too. If you don’t have a cell phone and instead use a home landline, you aren’t safe. Don’t think for one second that phone scammers only target cell phones. Phone scammers target phone numbers and try to get money or PII from you regardless of whether your device.
- Do not mess around with the scammers. Some people like to goof around and talk trash to the phone scammers. Never forget, the people who commit phone fraud are criminals! And, many criminals who are phone scammers are also involved in cybercrime that includes computer hacking. There have been cases where people played games with phone scammers. Once they did, they ended up as the cybercriminals’ pet project. So again, hang up, go about your day without antagonizing the criminals on the other end of the phone.
The Bottom Line on How Do Phone Scams Work
Remember, no matter what precautions you take or defensive tactics you use, phone scammers are continually evolving. Just as you figure out how do phone scams work currently, criminals will have created new ones. In today’s social media-driven society, criminals can research you through any number of other ways. They can find out who your friends are, where you live, what you like to eat, where you work, etc.
Remember all of those cute pics you post on Facebook? Well, hackers can see them too. So, think about it before you make a post.
Once scammers have your information, your life, friends, etc., they can use it to scam you and others. So, be wary when people you don’t know call you or when you FEEL something isn’t right about a call.
Also, remember, when in doubt, hang up!
Stay safe, secure, and prepared,
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