Robocalls calls have become epidemic. Nearly 48 billion of them — 146 for every person in America — were placed nationwide in 2018, up 57 percent from 2017, according to tracking by YouMail, which provides call-blocking and call-management services. The company estimates that 40 percent of automated calls are fraudulent.
Illegal robocalls include telemarketing spam (automated sales calls from companies you haven’t authorized to contact you) and attempts at outright theft. Prerecorded messages dangle goodies like all-expenses-paid travel or demand payment for nonexistent debts to get you to send money or give up sensitive personal data.
Scammers often use caller ID spoofing to mask their true location, making it appear that they’re calling from a legitimate or local number to raise the odds that you’ll pick up. If you do, the robotic voice on the other end might claim to represent a utility, a name-brand company or a government agency (Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service are popular poses). It might offer you a free cruise, cheap health insurance or a low-interest loan. It might claim you've won a lottery. It might tell you to press a particular key to learn more, or to get off a call list.
Whatever the message, don’t engage. Doing so can lead you to a real live scammer, who’ll pressure you to make a purchase or pump you for personal information, like a credit card or Social Security number. Even just pressing a key or answering a question alerts scammers that they’ve hit on a “live” number, and they’ll call it again and again.
It’s important to note that many robocalls are legal. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows them for some informational or noncommercial purposes, such as polling, political campaigning and outreach by nonprofit groups (including AARP). Your dentist’s office can robocall you with an appointment reminder, or an airline with news about a flight change.
But illegal robocalls make up a fast-growing share of phone traffic, making it all the more important to be on guard for automated scams.
- You receive an automated sales call from a company you have not given consent to contact you.
- A prerecorded message tells you to press “1” or some other key to be taken off a call list.
- The message offers you goods or services for free or at a suspiciously deep discount.
- The message says you owe back taxes or unpaid bills and face legal or financial consequences if you don’t pay immediately.
- The message says you've won a big lottery or sweepstakes prize and tells you to press a key or call a number to claim it.
- Do hang up on illegal robocalls.
- Do add all your numbers to the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry. It won’t stop fraudulent calls, but it will make them easier to spot because most legitimate telemarketers won’t call numbers on the registry.
- Do explore free and low-cost call-blocking options, such as apps and services that screen calls and weed out spam and scams. Ask your phone service provider if it offers any such tools.
- Do verify the caller. If the robocall claims to be from, say, Social Security or your bank, hang up and look up the real number for that entity. Call and ask if they contacted you.
- Do report scam calls to the proper authorities (see More Resources below). Every report helps authorities piece together a fuller picture of what scammers are doing.
- Do review a company’s privacy policies before you give it permission to call you. You might be authorizing them to share your contact information with others.
- Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. The FCC recommends letting them go to voicemail.
- Don’t press any keys or say anything in response to a prerecorded message. This lets scammers know yours is a working number and will lead to more spam calls.
- Don’t follow instructions to “speak to a live operator.” This will likely transfer you to a call center for an aggressive sales pitch or a phishing expedition.
- Don’t judge a call by caller ID alone. Scammers mask their location by tricking your phone into displaying a legitimate government or corporate number, or one similar to your own (a practice called “neighbor spoofing”).
Tech Support Scams
Computer viruses are scary, and for years perpetrators of tech support scams have sought to exploit that fear by tricking victims into believing their computers are infected and they need help.
As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes, some scam callers pretend to be connected with Microsoft, Apple or a familiar security software company such as Norton or McAfee and claim to have detected malware that poses an imminent threat to the mark’s computer. Other scams feature planted website ads or pop-ups that display warning messages, some even featuring a clock ticking down the minutes before the victim’s hard drive will be destroyed by a virus — unless he or she calls a toll-free number for assistance in deactivating the menace.
Once scammers have you running scared, they’ll ask for remote access to your computer in order to run phony diagnostic tests and pretend to discover defects in need of fixing. They’ll pressure you to pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs, new software, and other products and services.
Too often it works. Microsoft has estimated that tech support scams bilk 3.3 million people a year, at an annual cost of $1.5 billion — an average loss of more than $450 per victim. And those numbers are probably on the low side since many victims never realize they’ve been conned. To avoid becoming one of them, follow some basic precautions.
- An unsolicited phone call or email from someone claiming to work for Microsoft. The company says it does not contact customers unless they initiate communication.
A pop-up window warning that your computer has been infected or invaded and listing a number to call for help.
Anyone who asks you to pay for tech support or other services with a gift card, cash-reload card or wire transfer. The FTC says no legitimate company will ask for payment that way.
- Do check at least once a week for updates for your computer’s security software, and run scans several times a week.
- Do hang up if you get an unsolicited call from someone who claims to be a tech support provider for your computer or software.
Do read any warning message on your computer carefully. Bad grammar or misspelled words are telltale signs of a phony warning.
Do get rid of a fake virus alert message by shutting down your browser. You can do this on a Windows PC by pressing Control-Alt-Delete and bringing up the Task Manager. On a Mac, press the Option, Command and Esc (Escape) keys, or use the Force Quit command from the Apple menu.
Do contact your credit card company and request a reversal of the payment if you've been victimized. You’ll also want to look for other unauthorized charges and ask for those to be reversed as well.
- Don’t ever allow someone who calls you out of the blue to access your computer remotely.
Don’t rely on caller ID to determine if a caller is on the level. Scammers can make it appear as if they’re calling from a legitimate number.
Don’t give your computer username or any account passwords to someone over the phone.
Don’t give financial information to someone who calls a few days, weeks or months after you've made a tech support purchase and asks if you were satisfied — it's probably a “refund scam.” If you say “No,” the caller will ask for bank or credit card information, ostensibly to deposit a refund in your account but actually to steal from you.
Arrest Warrant Scam
Scammers create a fake Caller ID, which allows them to call you and make it appear that they are calling from a local police, sheriff or other law enforcement agency. They say there is a warrant out for your arrest, but that you can pay a fine in order to avoid criminal charges. Of course, these scammers don't take credit cards; only a Western Union MoneyGram, other wire transfer or pre-paid debit card will do.
The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and you could swear you paid that last gas and electric bill. But the caller from the power company is adamant that you’re overdue and says if you don’t pay up now, the juice goes out. That’s the last thing you want in the chilly dead of winter (or the long, hot summer, as the case may be). Best not to risk it.
That’s what fraudsters want you to think, and enough people do to make utilities a common subject of impostor scams, by far the most common type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Impersonators call homes and small businesses demanding payment for supposedly delinquent bills and threatening to terminate service. They time attacks for maximum urgency, stepping up activity during peak heating or air conditioning season, and targeting businesses at busy times (like the lunch or dinner rush at a restaurant).
A fake utility worker might also seek payment up front to replace or repair a meter or other device, or solicit personal information in the name of signing you up for a government program that reduces energy bills. Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of more than 100 North American natural gas, electric and water companies and trade groups, notes several other varieties of utility con:
- Rather than claiming you owe money, scam callers might say you’ve overpaid and ask for bank account or credit card information to make a “refund.”
- Scammers pretending to be utility workers show up at your home to inspect or repair equipment, investigate a supposed gas leak or do a free “audit” for energy efficiency. They may try to charge you for the phony service, sell you unnecessary products, collect personal information for use in identity theft or simply gain entry to steal valuables.
- Utility impostors send out phishing emails or “smishing” text messages to trick you into making a payment or supplying personal or financial data.
Utility scammers particularly target older Americans and people who are not native English speakers, according to CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based utility that provides direct gas or electricity service in six states. But anyone who pays a utility bill can be a mark — and anyone can avoid being victimized by taking a few precautions.
- An unscheduled or unsolicited call or visit from someone claiming to represent your power or water company.
- Threats to cut off service unless an overdue bill or maintenance cost is paid immediately.
- A demand for payment by wire transfer, cryptocurrency, gift card or cash-reload card — scammers’ favored methods.
- Do call the utility, at the customer-service number listed on your bill, to find out if you’re behind on a payment or if they have tried to contact you. Do not use a call-back number provided by an unknown caller.
- Do know how utilities operate. They do not request personal information over the phone, and they do not cut off service without considerable advance warning.
- Do ask questions of anyone calling you or coming to your door on supposed utility business — for example, their employee identification number, or the date and amount of your most recent payment.
- Do notify the utility if you’ve been approached by an impostor.
- Do notify neighbors if there’s a suspected scammer making the rounds in the area.
- Don’t provide personal or financial information to a caller or visitor you don’t know.
- Don’t wire money or provide numbers from prepaid cards to anyone who contacts you on utility matters.
- Don’t get scared. A scammer will try to convince you the lights or water are about to go out. If you’re actually behind on payments, the utility will send you a delinquent notice, probably more than once, and tell you the prospective shutoff date.
- Don’t let a supposed utility employee into your home unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem. Even if you have, check their identification first.
- Don’t click on links in a utility-related email or text message unless you’re certain it’s from the real company.
In these types of scams, the perpetrator often calls a grandparent or other relative pretending to be their grandchild/niece/nephew, etc. The caller sounds upset and typically states there are only a few moments to talk. The caller may say that they have a cold if you don't quite recognize their voice, or cue-in on feedback from the call to sound even more convincing. Their story generally follows a familiar line: they were traveling in another country with a friend, and after a car accident or legal infraction, they are in jail and need bail money to be wired to a Western Union account as soon as possible for their quick release. Should you be targeted in this type of scam, there are actions you can take to protect yourself. Although the supposed grandchild may plead with you not to tell his/her family, you should immediately reach out to parents or other relatives to verify the information you receive. In the vast majority of cases, the real relative is safely where he or she should be: at work, school or home.
Identity theft occurs when someone appropriates another's personal information without their knowledge to commit theft or fraud. Identity theft is a vehicle for perpetrating other types of fraud schemes. Typically, the victim is led to believe they are divulging sensitive personal information to a legitimate business, sometimes as a response to an email solicitation to update billing or membership information, or as an application to a fraudulent Internet job posting.
In lottery scams, scammers generally send an e-mail, fax, or letter to potential victims announcing that they have won a foreign lottery. The "winner" need only provide personal bank account information and pay a few fees up-front to collect his or her substantial winnings. The prize, of course, does not exist. No genuine lottery asks for money to pay fees or notifies it's winners via email. Like other "too good to be true" scams, lottery scams offer the victim great wealth in exchange for paying taxes and other processing fees up-front.
Money Transfers, Wire Services, and Green Dot Money Paks
A common tool used by scammers is to convince you over the telephone or e-mail to pay using a wire transfer service such as Western Union or Money Gram. Scammers may also try to tell you to pay them using a Green Dot Money Pak card or similar pre-paid credit card purchased at a store. These legitimate services provide a convenient way to transfer or give money to someone else, but they should be used wisely.
For fraud information on these products, refer to their links below:
Lower your chances of falling victim to fraud by checking out these eight things you should never do when using a money transfer service.
- Never wire money to people that you don't know or haven't met.
Never wire money to pay for taxes or fees on lottery or prize winnings.
Never purchase a pre-paid card at a store and give the number to someone over the phone who has called you requesting you do this.
Never provide your banking information to people or businesses you don’t know.
Never wire money in advance to obtain a loan or credit card.
Never wire money for an emergency situation without verifying that it’s a real emergency.
Never send funds from a check you received in the mail and deposited in your account until it officially clears—which can take weeks.
Never wire a money transfer for online purchases.
Nigerian Letter or "419"
Named for the violation of Section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, the 419 scam combines the threat of impersonation fraud with a variation of an advance fee scheme in which a letter, email, or fax is received by the potential victim. The communication from individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or foreign government officials offers the recipient the "opportunity" to share in a percentage of millions of dollars, soliciting for help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts. Payment of taxes, bribes to government officials, and legal fees are often described in great detail with the promise that all expenses will be reimbursed as soon as the funds are out of the country. The perpetrators will often then use the bank account details to empty their victim's bank account. Often, they convince the victim that money is needed up front, to pay fees or is needed to bribe officials.
Online Dating Scams
Dating and romance scams try to lower your defenses by appealing to your romantic or compassionate side. They play on emotional triggers to get you to provide money, gifts or personal details. Scammers target victims by creating fake profiles on legitimate internet dating services. Once you are in contact with a scammer, they will express strong emotions for you in a relatively short period of time and will suggest you move the relationship away from the website, to phone, email and/or instant messaging. They will go to great lengths to gain your interest and trust, such as sharing personal information and even sending you gifts. Scammers may also take months, to build what seems like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you, but never actually come. Once they have gained your trust they will ask you (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts or your banking/credit card details.
- You meet someone on an internet dating website and their profile picture or photograph looks different to their description or like it’s from a magazine.
- After gaining your trust, they tell you an elaborate story and ask for money, gifts or your bank account/credit card details.
- They continue to ask you for money.
Social Security Scams
Social Security numbers are the skeleton key to identity theft. And what better way to get someone’s Social Security number than by pretending to be from Social Security?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates that scammers call thousands of Americans every day, looking to wangle personal information, steal benefits or both. It’s a common form of government impostor scam, in which fraudsters pose as government officials to get you to send money or give up personal and financial data for use in identity theft.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported a surge in late 2018 in scams involving fake SSA employees calling people with warnings that their Social Security numbers had been linked to criminal activity and suspended. The caller asks you to confirm your number so he or she can reactivate it or issue you a new one, for a fee. This is no emergency but a ploy to get money and personal data: Social Security does not block or suspend numbers, ever.
This con is sometimes executed via robocall — the recording provides a number for you to call to remedy the problem. In another version, the caller says your bank account is at risk due to the illicit activity and offers to help you keep it safe.
On the other hand, you might get a call from a supposed SSA representative bearing good news — say, a cost-of-living increase in your benefits. To get the extra money, you just have to verify your name, date of birth and Social Security number. Armed with those identifiers, scammers can effectively hijack your account, asking SSA to change the address, phone number and direct deposit information on your record and thus diverting your benefits.
Consumer Reports warns of another trick with an ironic twist: Fraudsters send out emails that appear to be from SSA and instruct you to click a link to register for a free service that protects you from Social Security fraud. It’s actually a garden-variety phishing scam, designed to guide you to a fake government website that will steal your information.
With a little vigilance, Social Security scams are not difficult to identify and avoid.
- You get an unsolicited call from someone claiming to work for SSA. Except in rare circumstances, you will not get a call from Social Security unless you have already been in contact with the agency.
- The caller asks for your Social Security number — again, something an actual SSA employee wouldn’t do.
- A call or email threatens consequences, such as arrest, loss of benefits or suspension of your Social Security number, if you do not provide a payment or personal information.
- Do hang up if someone calls you out of the blue and claims to be from SSA.
- Do be skeptical if a caller claims to be an “officer with the Inspector General of Social Security.” Scammers appropriate official-sounding and often actual government titles to make a ruse seem authentic.
- Do set up a My Social Security account online and check it on a monthly basis for signs of anything unusual, even if you have not yet started collecting benefits.
- Do install a robocall-blocking app on your smartphone, or sign up for a robocall-blocking service from your mobile network provider.
- Don’t call a phone number left on your voice mail by a robocaller. If you want to contact SSA, call the customer-service line at 800-772-1213.
- Don’t assume a call is legitimate because it appears to come from 800-772-1213. Scammers use “spoofing” technology to trick caller ID.
- Don’t give your Social Security number or other personal information to someone who contacts you by email. SSA never requests information that way.
- Don’t click links in purported SSA emails without checking them. Mouse over the link to reveal the actual destination address. The main part of the address should end with “.gov/” — including the forward slash. If there’s anything between .gov and the slash, it’s fake.
Phishing and spoofing are somewhat synonymous in that they refer to forged or faked electronic documents. Spoofing generally refers to the dissemination of email which is forged to appear as though it was sent by someone other than the actual source. Phishing, often utilized in conjunction with a spoofed email, is the act of sending an email falsely claiming to be an established legitimate business in an attempt to dupe the unsuspecting recipient into divulging personal, sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers, and bank account information after directing the user to visit a specified website. The website, however, is not genuine and was set up only as an attempt to steal the user's information.
The IRS warns of a scam where potential victims are told to pay back taxes or fines or face dire consequences, including arrest, jail time, having their utilities shut off, having their driver’s licenses revoked, or deportation. The callers may be insulting or hostile in their attempts to scare their potential victims. In a twist to this scam, the callers may advise the intended victims they are entitled to a refund, but must give personal information or pay something first in order to get it. The IRS does not initiate taxpayer communications through email.
The Council of Aging (COA) warns of a scam to get personal medical information to falsely bill the government (Medicare). The impersonator uses the name of the COA director in town. They proceed to ask a few questions regarding the name of their doctor, type and list of medications prescribed, and the victim's Medicare ID number. The Council on Aging reminds elders and their caregivers that no one will call and ask for a Medicare number. The COA suggests that if you receive a phone call of this nature, you simply hang up without revealing any information. If you have any doubts of the legitimacy of a phone call from Medicare, please hang up and contact Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE.
Actions to Take if Scammed
Sometimes people fall victim to scams. If it happens, here are steps to take:
- Check your credit report to ensure no one is trying to open credit using your credentials. The three major credit reporting companies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- Put an initial fraud alert on your credit report. This alert makes it harder for someone to open an account in your name because a business must verify your identity before it can issue credit. The alert stays valid for 90 days.
Check your bank account and credit card statements for any unusual activity.
Contact a financial institution directly if you think an account there may have been breached.
If you fear your identity may be stolen, file an identity theft report: www.consumer.ftc.gov.