8 common phone scams and how to spot them
Your phone rings and the caller ID displays a local number.
You pick it up, thinking, "Maybe it's my pharmacist or chiropractor," or perhaps, "One of my friends must have a new number."
When you answer, you're sadly mistaken. A robot on the other end of the line rambles off a pre-recorded message threatening an arrest if you don't pay your fines.
Even with technology meant to eradicate scams, Dan Hendrickson, a spokesperson at the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, says phone scams continue to proliferate.
"Even over the last 5 or 10 years, the number of scams out there targeting people just never seems to decrease," he says. "These days, honestly, it'd be a rare week that the average person didn't get at least a couple scam calls and possibly many more. It's ongoing and unfortunately, as long as there are phones, it probably will be ongoing."
Targeting behind the scenes
When it comes to phone scams, no one is immune but one demographic may be targeted more frequently.
"Seniors are probably the most targeted simply because they're home — or they are often available during the day to pick up, whereas most people who are working or in school just don't have that capability — they're not around," Hendrickson says.
Robocalls — or automated phone calls — are illegal in most cases.
"In general, any automated phone call that's pushing services from someone you've never done business with are generally illegal and people should report them to the FTC," Hendrickson says.
Some scammers will use local area codes or even familiar prefixes to entice people to pick up. In some instances, consumers will receive calls from numbers belonging to real people. In those cases, when callers return the phone call, the person who answers will wonder why someone is "calling them back" because they didn't call in the first place.
"They have technology — it's called spoofing," Hendrickson explains. "They can alter the information that appears on your caller ID. We even see cases where you'll see your own phone number flash up on caller ID. That's kind of another trip for people."
Autodialers also allow scammers to make hundreds of phone calls simultaneously. In addition to gaining personal and financial information, scammers are often looking for something as simple as getting you to pick up the phone.
"In some cases, that alone can get you on additional lists or attract more phone calls. They'll see, OK (they) picked up, therefore we know that phone is a good number and we can add it to our list of live phone numbers," Hendrickson says. "Then they sell those lists to other scammers, believe it or not."
In other cases, automated calls will ask you to press a number to opt out or respond to a prompt. Hendrickson says to avoid doing that, which also indicates you are responsive.
Spotting a scam
While the list of scams is virtually endless, Hendrickson provides details about some of the most common scams. Be wary of these if you answer the phone.
• Credit card and collection companies. One of the most common scam calls are those coming from a fake company called Credit Card Services. "All they're really phishing for there is financial information, personal information or both," Hendrickson says.
• IRS. "The IRS scam is perpetual. Anytime you feel threatened or pushed into a corner where you have to make a payment on the spot, it's a scam," Hendrickson says. "People start imagining themselves being marched out in front of their coworkers by the police. No legitimate agency is going to do that. The IRS certainly doesn't work that way."
• Sweepstakes scams. With seniors targeted most often for these types of calls, scammers will "just talk and talk, saying 'Hey, we're with the Publisher's Clearinghouse. You won $1 million and oh, by the way, you won a new BMW,'" Hendrickson says. "Of course, it comes to a point where you have to pay taxes, insurance or fees to claim your winnings."
• Jury duty. "People might get a phone call saying they missed jury duty and they better pay a fine or else they'll get arrested," he says. "Again, that's not how it works."
• Tech support scams. In these scams, people recieve calls from someone claiming to be a technology company like Microsoft, offering help for your slow-running computer or other issues. "When there is a problem with your computer, we always say, 'You call the expert. The expert doesn't call you,'" Hendrickson says. In this instance, the scammer may be looking for a credit card payment, promising a technology protection, or permission for remote access in which they gain the ability to control and search your computer.
• Medicaid / Medicare scams. "People will get a call that's supposedly from Medicaid saying they need to update or confirm their information," Hendrickson says. Note that Medicaid or Medicare should already have the necessary information they need.
• Student loan forgiveness scams. "It's kind of a hot scam just because there are so many people out there that have student loan debt," he says. They may offer fake loan forgiveness and eventually request payment for their services.
• One ring scam. In this instance, scammers call and hang up after one ring. "In some cases, the number that shows up on your caller ID ends up being a number from the Dominican Republic so when you call back, you're actually charged for that phone call," Hendrickson says. Even though you may be tempted, it's best not to return the call.
Handling a scam call
Hendrickson says the BBB's advice is to avoid any phone calls from unfamiliar phone numbers.
"For strange phone calls, let it go to the voicemail," he says. "If it's important, they'll leave a message."
If you do happen to pick up a suspicious call, be cautious.
"If you get that automated phone call, that should set off an alarm bell," he says. "Skepticism is people's best protection these days. We don't live in the time anymore where you can take people at their word, unfortunately."
Jot down any pertinent information so you can report the call as well. Don't panic and take time to make informed decisions.
"We have too many conversations with folks who have sent money away and ask how to get their money back. We have to say, 'You probably aren't going to get your money back,'" Hendrickson says. "There are a lot of bad fish in the pond. They're definitely always in motion and looking for victims. Have that skepticism going — that's really a great defense."
What you should and shouldn't do
Keep these tips top of mind when dealing with phone scams:
• Block phone calls. If you're receiving repetitive scam calls from one number, talk to your provider about how to block the call.
• Register your phone(s) with DoNotCall.org. "The good thing is, the companies and organizations that abide by the rules will not call you," Hendrickson says. "Unfortunately, the bad companies, the fraudsters and suspect entities will not stop calling you. It isn't a magic bullet, but it should reduce the number of phone calls you get."
• Don't give out information over the phone. This includes your name, financial information, personal information, social security number, etc.
• Don't be pressured into making a payment. Even when threatened, don't feel forced to make a payment. "Keep in mind, you have rights as a consumer," Hendrickson says.
• Limit who you give your phone number to. When signing up for contests, sweepstakes, etc., ask what the policy is on sharing your contact information.
How to report a scam
Hendrickson says organizations are available to call for feedback about a possible scam or ask for confirmation about a problematic phone call. Here are some resources:
• BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota: Resource specialist are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday at (800) 646-6222. Visit bbb.org/scamtracker/minnesota to view the Scam Tracker.
• Federal Trade Commision: Call (888) 382-1222 with questions or to report a scam. Visit complaints.donotcall.gov/complaint/complaintcheck.aspx to report unwanted calls.
• National Do Not Call Registry: Consumers can register their phone number on the DoNotCall.org.