How to Recognize and Report Phone Scams

Last updated: November 12, 2020

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Have you been getting endless suspicious calls from an unknown number? You’re not alone. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans have lost money on a phone scam. Phone scams and spam calls seem to happen on a daily basis. But, instead of answering the phone, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself instead.

In some cases, it might not actually be a scam call, but you can never be too safe. By taking the time to educate yourself and your family members, you can stay safe from phone scam calls.

What are Phone Scams?

Phone scam calls can be a real person or robo-dialed. You can even get automated calls that will attempt to forward you to an actual scammer.

Plus, things like spoofing and phone number generations make it easier for fraudsters to make it seem like their calls are coming from an actual person, company, or agency.

Once a scammer can get you on the line, they’ll use threats, aggressive sales pitches, and other tactics to try and steal your money or commit identity theft.

The reason phone scams still exist, is that they sadly still work. The FTC reports the average personal loss from a phone scam is $1000.

Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself from phone scams, from adding your numbers to certain lists, using blocking tools, and educating yourself on avoiding scam calls in the first place.

How to Identify a Scam Call

Telephone scam artists are usually trying to steal your money or your personal private information. There are a few different types of phone scams, but these are the most common:

  • Robocalls
  • Phone calls
  • Text messages

When you receive these types of calls they’ll be filled with the scammer making false promises that seem too good to be true, like getting free money in the mail, letting you in on an incredible investment opportunity, winning a giveaway, and more.

Some calls will attempt to sell you things in order to extract private information like health, identification, or financial information. Some scams will even focus on threatening you with fines or jail time.

Here are some of the biggest warning signs that you’ve received a scam call:

  • The person who’s calling is claiming to be from a government agency like Medicare or the IRS, a major tech company, utility company, or a bank. Institutions will very rarely call you first unless you’ve set up an appointment or have already had previous communication and are expecting a phone call.
  • Calls from charities or churches who are seeking donations, usually following a major disaster.
  • Automated robocalls from a company who aren’t currently offering you services, or you’re not currently a customer with.
  • Calls that are pitching products or services that just seem too good to be true. Some common offers include winning a raffle or giveaway, free vacations, loans and debt reduction, car warranties, and other things of this nature.

Never give away sensitive information over the phone like your social security number, credit card number, debit card number, or bank account number.

Most Common Types of Phone Scams

There are a variety of different scam types out there and new scams are being thought up every single day. But, most scams will fall into similar categories.

Here are some of the most common scam calls you’ll want to be aware of:

Coronavirus Scams

Since the COVID-19 pandemic coronavirus scam calls have been on the rise. These can be used to try and steal your sensitive health information, often posing as health agents or spreading other kinds of misinformation.

Tech Support Calls

In this scam, the caller will pretend they are from a large well-known company like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, or Google. They’ll say there’s a problem with your account or an error with your computer.

They’ll then walk you through “fixing” the error, which is just really just giving them remote access to your computer, or giving away other sensitive personal login and account information.

This can also take the form of a password reset call, where the scammer will attempt to get to you reset your password, and give them access to your account.

Fake IRS Calls

The fake IRS call is a threatening call where the scammer will say they’re from the IRS and threaten fines and jail-time if their demands are not met. These calls will take place more frequently during tax season. Often, on these calls, they’ll demand payment in the form of gift cards, since they’re relatively hard to trace. The IRS and other government agencies will always reach you by mail.

This scam can also take the form of the Medicare or Social Security Office, where the scammer will pose as a representative to obtain your social security number or other personal and medical information to steal your identity.

Fake Charity or Church Calls

Charity or church donation scams usually occur when a tragedy or natural disaster strikes and will be targeted to a local area. Or, the disaster will be large enough that the scammer is trying to prey upon the sympathy of others.

Even if you want to give to people during this time, don’t do it to a random caller. Instead, do your research for actual charitable organizations that are helping.

Lottery and Giveaway Scams

In this scam, the caller will tell you that you’ve been randomly selected for a cash prize or some other giveaway prize.

But, to give you what you’ve won you’ll need to pay some kind of setup fee or taxes on your winnings. Here they’ll be looking to collect your banking or credit card information. They can even ask you to initiate a wire transfer directly from your bank account.

Bank or Credit Card Scams

In some credit card or bank scams, they’ll be calling pretending they’re from your bank or credit card company. They’ll say there’s been fraudulent activity on your account and they’ll need you to verify your banking or credit card information.

If you receive one of these calls, hang up, and call your actual bank or credit card company to see if the call was legitimate.

Loved One in Trouble Scam

This scam is most often geared towards seniors or those with grandchildren. The scammer will pose as a friend or a friend of the family and request an immediate wire transfer to help a family member in need. This could be due to unforeseen medical bills, an arrest, or something else.

If you have older family members it’s important to educate them about the scams that are out there today, and how they can better protect themselves.

Great Deal Scams

Great deal scams involve the scammer offering a deal that seems too good to be true. This includes cheap vacations and timeshares, super low-interest loans, cell phone plans cheaper than your current rate, better credit card rates and more.

If you’ve gotten a call promising something free, or offering you an incredible deal the best course of action is to block the number and report it as spam.

Loans, Auto Warranties, Insurance

Another common type of scam is where a person is trying to sell you auto warranties, loans, or health insurance over the phone. In a lot of these calls, the scammer isn’t actually trying to sell you anything, but instead just trying to obtain personal sensitive information.

It’s always a good practice to not buy anything over the phone unless you’re making a payment through a well-known company.

How to Protect Your Number from Scam Calls in the Future

There are a variety of ways you can prevent further scam calls. A lot of modern smartphones like iPhones and newer Androids have spam calling detection built-in and will automatically block spam calls for you.

Still, some calls will slip through the cracks.

Here are a few tips:

  • You can put your number on the Federal Trade Commission Do Not Call Registry. This won’t stop calls entirely, but most telemarketing companies will avoid calling numbers that are on this list.
  • If you pick up a scam call and realize it’s a scam, then hang up immediately.
  • If you don’t recognize the area code, then don’t answer the phone. There are area codes that are commonly associated with scammers.
  • You can use a mobile app that blocks calls, or screens calls for you, so you can sort through them later.
  • If you’re not sure if it’s a scam or not, then don’t be afraid to slow down and ask questions. If it is a legitimate business, then they’ll answer your questions and give you time to think about things. Scam callers are always trying to pressure you to take action quickly or send over an immediate payment.
  • Research any offers that were made independently. If it is a legitimate business, or person, that called you, then you’ll be able to find information online about the business.
  • Use a phone number lookup tool to trace the number and see if it’s tied to an actual person, or business, or has already been identified as a spam number.

The ultimate thing to remember is: do not take action on the call. If you think that it’s a scammer, then hang up, you won’t gain anything in continuing to remain on the line.

Here are a few things to avoid:

  • If you don’t recognize the number that’s calling your phone, then don’t answer. If it was someone you know, you can always call them back later.
  • Don’t return calls from overseas numbers. If you call them back you could incur very high fees.
  • If it’s a prerecorded call (or robocall), don’t press any numbers or follow instructions. This could lead to further calls down the road, or direct you to a live scammer.
  • Don’t give out any personal information or financial information over the phone. One of the tricks is to say they already have your information on file, but you just need to confirm it, this is a sign of a scam.
  • If they’re offering a free product they might ask you to pay a delivery charge, or a setup fee, don’t do it. This is just a way for them to obtain your credit card information.

Is Caller ID Effective?

Caller ID revolutionized landlines, but today even your caller ID can get hijacked by a scammer.

Often, a scam caller can use a phone spoof to set up a fake name or company that will show up on your caller ID. This will mask the number that appears on your phone and may look like a legitimate person.

But, if you don’t recognize the name, the best course of action is to not answer the phone. You can always listen to the voicemail, or look up the phone number associated with the caller ID name to see if it’s legit.

Reporting Scam Calls

If you’ve received a scam call there’s a lot you can do to prevent them from occurring again in the future. For example, you can make sure your number is listed on the website donotcall.gov.

If you have been a victim of a phone scam, then make sure you file a report with your local law enforcement agency. Most victims of phone scams aren’t able to recover their losses, but it can help move the process forward if it is a possibility.

Finally, if the business that keeps calling you is an actual business, then you can file a consumer complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

Using a Scam Call Lookup

Not every unknown number that calls you is going to be a scam call, however with the rise of spam and scam calls there’s a good chance that it is.

To be sure if it’s a scam call or not, you can perform a reverse phone search. Anytime you get a call, or receive a voicemail, with someone demanding money, using threats, or making promises that are too good to be true, you should do a reverse phone search.

This will allow you to see if the number calling you is legit, or if it’s a scammer that’s trying to get your money or extract sensitive personal information from you.

By doing a reverse phone search you’ll be able to see if the number is a legitimate number, or not. If you can’t find any information when you perform a scam call search, then the chances are high that it is indeed a scam call. Make sure you block this number to prevent it from contacting you again.

What Information is Provided in a Reverse Phone Lookup?

By using a reverse phone lookup tool you can see if the number calling you is a scammer, or it’s an old friend or colleague trying to get in touch.

A reverse phone lookup search will compile all of the publicly available data that’s tied to the phone number you’re searching for.

Here is some of the information you’ll be able to find in a report:

Owner of the Phone Number

If the number is linked to an actual person or business, then this information should show up in the report.

This makes it very easy to see if it’s an actual person who’s calling you, and not just a scammer, or telemarketer.

Job and Education History

The job and education history section will show any old jobs or schools they were associated with.

This can be helpful to spot and links you might have in common. For example, you thought the call was a spam call, but in reality, it was a call from your alumni network where you went to college.

History of the Phone Number

It’s not uncommon for people to change phone numbers periodically. This is true for landline numbers and cell phone numbers.

Some reports will show the history of the number, and even past location information if it’s available.

Location History

This can show the current location that’s linked to the phone number. If you’re not familiar with this location, or the area code linked to the number, then you can dig into the report and uncover more information about the local area such as:

  • Census data
  • Local demographic data
  • Crime statistics

Social Media Profiles

If the number you’re searching for has any linked social media accounts, then these should show up in your search. This is a great way to instantly find out more information about the number and person you’ve just searched for.

Background Report

If the phone number is tied to an actual person, then any available background check information can show up in the report as well.

Anything associated with that phone number or person can show up like:

  • Arrest or criminal record
  • Traffic violations
  • Bankruptcies
  • Liens

Additional Online Links and Profiles

If the number is linked to any additional social profiles, websites, or blogs, this can show up in the report as well. This can be a variety of things like:

  • Personal or company websites
  • Online mentions
  • News stories featuring their name