Why You Can’t Trust Phone Calls You Think You Should Trust

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“Call from 877-382-4357? Hang Up,” warns the Federal Trade Commission. Seems that phone number – better known as 877-FTC-HELP, the agency’s go-to hotline to report scams – is another example in a never-ending plague of spoofing, the practice of deliberately displaying a false number (and sometimes name) on the recipient’s caller ID.

The goal of scammers using this tried-and-true telephone trickery is to present a phone number that can be trusted, so recipients answer the phone. “Once you start talking,” explains Jonathan Sasse of PrivacyStar, whose app identities and blocks scam calls, “their autodialing software detects a live number and person on the other end and the scam begins.”

How spoofing works: Using cheap and readily available services such as Spoofcard and/or popular computer-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone systems, phoning fraudsters select whatever number they want displayed, for whatever ruse they choose. They most often pretend to be calling from a government agency, utility company, bank or tech company such as Microsoft. They also claim to be police, sweepstakes officials, even AARP. Fast-growing schemes include spoofing local numbers (typically using the recipient’s same area code and prefix) so calls appear to be from neighbors, your pharmacy or doctor’s office – or even your own phone number.

Some spoofed calls are made individually, but the majority are sent en masse – sometimes by the millions – with the help of autodialers. Some are “live,” but most are robocalls – and with as little as your “Hello,” you’re typically transferred to a boiler room where a smooth-talking fraudster take over.

Although spoofing scams have been around for nearly a decade – originally done mostly to glean consumers’ bank account details – it’s now the foundation of most leading phone scams. (Spoofing itself is not illegal, but under federal law, it is illegal to transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value.”)

Whatever the ruse, it’s the same rip-off: First, display a phone number that appears trustworthy so the call is answered. Then, those most untrustworthy scoundrels behind this deceptive dialing angle for your money and/or phish for personal information that could be used for identity theft – usually by instilling fear, sometimes luring with greed.

To make calls seems authentic – and better incentivize you to answer – spoofed numbers often display the name of the supposed caller, say “Internal Revenue Service” or “Bank of America.” But others have more generic displays such as “Bank” or “County Courthouse,” maybe a city such as “Washington, D.C.”; others simply show a phone number.

Consider the most common phone schemes, each using spoofing with a fraud-focused cornerstone: False threats of immediate arrest from self-described IRS agents and police because of overdue taxes or missing jury duty. Bogus bank calls alleging “a problem with your account” and Medicare scams claiming a need to “verify your identity” or you’ll lose benefits. The myth that your computer has a crippling virus when those liars from a far-away country have no idea if you even own one. The list goes on – and so will spoofing.

Depending on your phone type and operating system, call-blocking apps such as Hiya, Truecaller, NoMoRobo or PrivacyStar can block many spoofing calls. But when others get through, here’s what to do in addition to not answering or hanging up:


  • If you answer, don’t speak. A “live” person on the other end will start a conversation, but several seconds of dead silence indicates it’s a robocall using voice-activated technology to transfer you, or at least play a message.
  • If you speak, say nothing of value. That includes providing or even confirming your name, account numbers, anything that helps phoning fraudsters identify you. If the caller claims to be with a company you do business with, hang up and call the customer service number listed on your statements, in the phone book, or on the company’s website. If the caller claims to be with a government agency, hang up – knowing that the IRS, Medicare, SSA and other government agencies do not make unsolicited phone calls.
  • If you have a voice mail account with your phone service, set a password for it.  Some voicemail services are preset to allow access if you call in from your own phone number, and without a password, scammers could spoof your home phone number and gain access to your voice mail.
  • If it’s not personal, assume it’s a scam. Unlike automated but personalized reminder calls from doctor’s offices or pharmacy, scam robocall campaigns do not mention your name or other personal identifiers. That’s because thousands or millions of others get the identical message.

For information about other scams, sign up for the
Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

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Most Likely to Be Scammed? Not Seniors, but Millennials

Most Likely to Be Scammed? Not Seniors, but Millennials

Gray-haired folk have long held “most scammed” status, but it may be time to pass on that unfortunate legacy. While the retirement-aged are targeted most often, increasing data shows that it’s millennials — our children and grandchildren ages 18 to 35 — who are most likely to lose money to fraudsters. Consider these recent findings:

Phone scams. About 1 in 10 American adults lost an estimated $9.5 billon to phone scams last year. Leading the pack were millennial men between ages 18 and 34, who were three times more likely to be victimized than the overall population, reports mobile communications company Truecaller, which offers a spam-blocking phone app. Its Harris-conducted survey of 2,000 adults finds that 33 percent of male mills report losing money to phone scammers; that compares to just 3 percent of males between ages 55 and 64 and 1 percent of men 65 and older. Meanwhile, some 11 percent of female millennials got duped, four times the rate of women 55 and older.

IRS imposter scams. Among the scariest and most successful phone scams: calls from self-described IRS agents threatening arrest, property seizure or deportation. Although millennials are less likely than Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1984) or boomers (born 1946 to 1964) to receive tax scam calls, they are six times more likely to reveal credit card and Social Security numbers and other sensitive information, finds another just-released survey of 1,000 adults. Roughly 17 percent of millennials confessed that they had forked over ID theft-worthy details to mystery callers who could cite the last four digits of their Social Security number (as tax scammers often do), compared to only 3 percent of Gen Xers and 2 percent of boomers.

Job scams. Overall, about 1 in 6 job seekers have been scammed while searching for work online, and the highest gotcha rate is among that generation considered the most tech-savvy — millennials. In a 2015 survey of 2,600 American adults, job-search website FlexJobs finds that 20 percent of millennial job seekers got scammed, compared to 13 percent of those in their 60s.

Tech support scams. Millennials, especially men between 18 and 35, are the most often targeted and leading scammer-paying victims tricked by phony pop-up ads or alerts warning of a crippling computer virus. The top danger zone to snag most-duped male mills in these tech support scams: porn websites.

Everyday fraud. In its own research of more than 2,000 adults last year, the Better Business Bureau finds that some 30 percent of those between ages 25 and 34 lost money to scammers; it’s only single digits among those 55 and older.

What explains these trends? As experts continue to study the “whys,” the leading theories:

  1. We’re better prepared. Older is wiser — at least when it comes to recognizing that we’re vulnerable to scams. And heeding news, advice and warnings by AARP’s Fraud Watch Network and others, we are better able to spot scams and act accordingly. Tracking some 30,000 consumers targeted in different schemes, the BBB finds that nearly 9 in 10 seniors recognized the scam in time, with only 11 percent reporting they lost money. Millennials, meanwhile, lose money three times more often, likely being duped because they are clueless or could care less about educating themselves to prevent scams.
  2. Millennials think they’re invulnerable. Ask mills to describe the typical scam victim and their usual reply: an elderly, naive woman with less income and education. (The reality is younger college graduates have the highest gotcha rates.) While scam-savvy oldsters know that anyone is vulnerable, some researchers believe that millennials are most likely to have an “invulnerability illusion” — the belief that other people are more vulnerable than themselves. That mindset leads to more impulsive decision-making.
  3. They overuse and overtrust technology. Raised with the internet and cellphones, the average millennial, studies say, spends about 18 hours per day using some type of digital media. Because they are so familiar and comfortable with technology, defenses (and common sense radar) can take a back seat. Compared with other age groups, millennials are more likely to be careless with their tech — such as not using passwords to lock computers and cellphones and accessing financial accounts and doing online shopping on risky public Wi-Fi.
  4. They overshare. Tweets about breakfast. Selfies over lunch. Millennials love to share their lives online with who-knows-who, and that often includes details best kept private — names, birth dates, likes and dislikes, and other personal information that could be used for identity theft and scam-targeting sucker lists. Promise them a prize or other “tangible benefits,” and the majority of millennials willingly share their personal information with even unrecognized online askers. And guess which age group, says online security firm Norton, most likely willy-nilly shares their computer and cellphone passwords? No surprise (again): those between 18 and 34.


For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: iStock/Zinkevych

Also of Interest


See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.

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Fear by Phone: High Anxiety for You, High Profits for Scammers

Fear by Phone: High Anxiety for You, High Profits for Scammers

The telephone is a scammer’s best weapon, used in 77 percent of money-netting schemes, reports the government’s latest scam-tracking data. The best ammo: Fear, and here’s how it bangs best for the biggest bucks:

“Official” intimidation. The most profitable and most-played schemes have fraudsters posing from a government agency – Medicare, the Social Security Administration, FBI, local police and, of course, the IRS. (Until busted last year, one India-based ring of IRS imposters was netting $150,000 per day preying on retirees and other Americans.)  These self-described G-men threaten dire consequences – lost benefits, impending arrest and hefty fines – for supposed (even minor) offenses unless a fine is immediately paid and/or ID theft-worthy personal information is “verified.”

Why hang up: If there’s really an issue, government agencies will contact you by U.S. mail – not phone. Arrests aren’t pre-announced. Tax-supported agencies do not demand, or may even accept, scammer-requested payments such as prepaid debit and iTunes cards.

“Friendly” fraud. Along with emotions, the fear factor climbs with scare tactics made by those you supposedly know and trust: Grandchildren claiming trouble while traveling (which nets some imposters $10,000 per day) or in a recent resurgence, subject to a telephoned virtual kidnapping. Online sweethearts with a sudden overseas emergency that requires financial help. Your bank, credit card or utility company, supposedly warning of account problems and lost service.

Why hang up: So you can verify the claim and contact your loved one or institution before providing money or information to those just claiming to be. Scammers can glean call-convincing information like relatives’ names from social media and online directories.

Robocalls. The messages are terrifying in many of 2.4 billion robocalls made each day: You are being sued. You can fall and die without that “free” medical alert device. You are overpaying interest on your plastic. You need quick action to avoid these and other problems.

Why hang up: Notice what isn’t mentioned in these robocalls? Your name. Autodialers are programmed to blast millions of prerecorded calls per day; until recipients respond, fraudsters typically have no idea of who gets their robocalls, or if dialed numbers are active. So don’t say anything after “Hello” or push any key, not even to supposedly “opt out” of future calls; that only alerts callers that your number is live. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission recently proposed new rules, expected to take effect in coming months, to allow phone companies to block robocallers that “spoof” Caller ID numbers to conceal their actual area codes and identities or make them appear as to belong to a trusted entity.

Debt collectors. Generating more complaints than any category – including identity theft – debt collectors often try to scare targets into paying a debt…whether legitimately theirs or not.

Why hang up: It’s illegal for collectors to threaten or be abusive. Despite their lies, police don’t arrest for unpaid debts and garnished wages or Social Security benefits can only occur for delinquent state or federal debts such as unpaid student loans, taxes, government-backed mortgages or child support – not private debt.

If you really owe, you may want to talk once with calling collectors to try to resolve the matter. If it’s not your debt or you don’t wanted continued calls, write a letter saying so – sent by certified mail with “return receipt.” Once receiving your letter, collectors may not contact you again, with two exceptions: to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit. (Your letter doesn’t get rid of legitimate debts, only calls related to them). Report violators to the Federal Trade Commission or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: ponsulak/iStock

Also of Interest


See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.

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