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What You Need to Know About Phone Scams

Your phone rings and the screen flashes with the number of a friend or someone else you recognize. At least, that’s what scammers want you to think. Phone scams are on the rise as scammers see opportunity thanks to many Americans getting stimulus checks, an increase in concern about COVID vaccine distribution and soon, the annual tax seasonAnd the methods of criminals are becoming more sophisticated and aggressive. Their goals? Steal your personal information and empty your wallet. 

“Scammers are catching you off guard and using fear and intimidation,” says Carrie Kerskie, a fraud and scam expert and founder of  Identity Fraud Academy. “They’re professionals and it’s their full-time job. They know what to say and how to say it.”

In the era of COVID, the FBI recently warned of an increase in callers offering tests or priority vaccines and asking for personal information, such as Social Security numbers (SSN), Medicare or private health insurance information. Scammers know that you are fielding calls from strange numbers about the health and well-being of yourself and your family – and these – criminals will use any trick to get your information. Kerskie has identified various phone scams and how to avoid – them. They aren’t always easy to spot, but these three clues can help.

  1. The caller expresses a sense of urgency.  A scammer will often say that you must take care of the issue – that you are hearing about for the first time – immediately or there will be a terrible consequence. Examples include owing the IRS money that must be paid within hours, your SSN being compromised or suspended, or winning a prize that you must claim with personal information. They pressure you to “act now” and not hang up. Never agree to give information to someone over the phone without taking time to verify it’s legitimate first. You can always ask a government agency to contact you in writing.
  2. They won’t let you off the call.  When you ask to call them back, they refuse and insist you can’t – this must be done now or terrible things could happen. If you say you need to check the details, they will insist on staying on the line with you. They may threaten arrest, suspension of your account, or harm to you or your loved ones. Any time someone insists you cannot hang up and call back is time to be suspicious.
  3. They want specific forms of payment.  Gift cards are a preferred form of payment for scammers as they are virtually untraceable after you give them to someone. Reputable businesses and federal agencies won’t pressure you for a specific form of payment. “If you hear the words gift cards, hang up,” says Kerskie. “Federal agencies do not take gift cards.”
People talking phone. Men and women calling by telephone. Communication and conversation with smartphone vector characters set. Illustration of phone call, speaking social, talking and chattingMicroOne/Shutterstock

Now that you know what to look for, it’s time for you to learn a little bit more about scammers and how they might try to swindle you.

You don’t have to give up your SSN to get scammed

A caller, posing as survey taker, may ask you general questions: the make and model of your car, your favorite color, or the name of your first-grade teacher. While these questions may seem innocuous, they could turn into security questions, ripe for a scammer to use when logging into one of your accounts. The same goes for the information on your social media accounts. Your dog’s name or your children’s names are all fair game for security questions. “They may not have asked for your social security number,” says Kerskie, “but when you dig deeper, think about what they did ask you.”

Scammers take advantage of current events

Scammers, eager to cash in on stimulus payments, are posing as the IRS. “We tried to deposit your check in your bank account,” the caller may say. They may not ask for you bank account but instead confirmation of your bank account and routing number. They’ll claim that to process your payment, you have to verify sensitive bank account information, your address, or the name of your bank. In other schemes, the scammer will ask you what type of computer you use, and even what type of phone you own. Now they know what kinds of devices you use. “This information gives the bad guys a leg up between you and your money,” says Kerskie.

The latest statistics show that  74% of Americans  own laptops or computers, so it makes sense that scammers would find a way to “help” owners with technical issues. The problem is, the people they’re calling don’t have problems with their computers. The caller will say they’ve detected a problem with your machine and will direct you to a website to gain access to your computer. By clicking a link on the site, you’re unknowingly downloading remote access software.

Once the scammer is in your computer, they’re able to access it from anywhere around the world. “They put up this dog and pony show upfront making you think they are fixing your device,” says Kerksie. “On the backend, they’re siphoning data off your device.” Scammers are happy to rid your computer of what they claim has malware, by asking you to pay anywhere from $250 to over $600. When the victim hands over their credit card information, the scammer often says the credit card isn’t valid (even though it is) and requests another form of payment. When they tell you the second card didn’t go through, they often ask for a routing and bank account number. If you don’t hand over your credit card information, they will hold your device for ransom by changing your login credentials.

Scammers know how to fake a phone number

Kerskie describes a scam where a client received a spoof call from what he thought was his daughter’s phone. The caller claimed his daughter was in immediate trouble. He and the family almost fell for the scam until the daughter called her mom’s phone and asked how she was doing while he was on the call. In addition, these criminals have no problem leaving a voicemail with a fake callback number. They expect their targets to trust the reliability of the number instead of going to the website and confirming the correct digits. Never trust a number for callback without verifying it on an official business or organizational website first. If it’s a business you’ve never heard of, Google the business and look for reviews. If none exist, get suspicious.

young couple using a laptop while sitting on a sofa. web page design template for online education, learning, video tutorials. Vector illustration in flat styleDRogatnev/Shutterstock

Protect Yourself from Scammers

Scammers are constantly devising ways to pad their bank accounts while depleting those of victims who fall for their scams. Consider these five ways Kerksie recommends protecting yourself from being scammed.

1. Use Scam Protection Apps

All the major wireless providers offer some form of free scam protection to customers so make sure you are using the tools available to you. The most robust protection comes from T-Mobile’s Scam Shield. This app offers a front-line defense against scammers including free warnings of potential scam calls and the ability to block likely scam calls completely with Scam Block. In addition, the company gives customers free Caller ID and one free second number called “PROXY” that you can give out like your junk email address to help keep your private number private and stop scammers ability to even reach you.

“What I love about T-Mobile’s Scam Shield is they offer a free second number, or “PROXY,” says Kerksie. “It’s brilliant.” Having a second number is a great idea for use while shopping in-person or online, or anywhere else you don’t want to share your personal number. The PROXY line is a separate app on your phone so you can silence it and check the VM whenever it’s convenient for you.

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Courtesy of T-Mobile

2. Sign up for Credit Monitoring

Knowledge is power and keeping track of what’s happening with your credit, BEFORE a scammer gets to you is a great tool. If you see suspicious activity you know right away and you can either institute a fraud alert with credit bureaus or freeze your account. Although a freeze is a little more time consuming — you have to contact each credit bureau directly — Kerksie recommends it. A freeze tells credit bureaus they’re not allowed to release a report to new creditors. If someone goes to the bank and the representative sees that the account has been frozen, they won’t have access to a credit report. Without that information, a scammer can’t open an account. Most of the time, when a scammer gets a social security number, they’re going to set up a new account, buy merchandise to sell online, and get cash advances from a credit card. Implementing a freeze can thwart those efforts.

A fraud alert is an easier option — you call one credit bureau and they notify other bureaus on your behalf — but is easy to bypass. Kerksie describes a situation where an imposter goes to a bank, opens an account, and applies for a credit card and loan. Although the bank may see that you’ve placed a fraud alert, the scammer can bypass it by showing a forged ID.

3. Actively manage your online security.

If you think you’ve given out information that scammers could use, depending on what information you’ve provided to a caller, log into your accounts and change your security questions and answers. Always use a strong password with a combination of letters, numbers and special symbols. Register for two-factor authentication if a website lets you do so. The scammer may not attempt to breach your accounts right away, but if and when they do, you’ll be better prepared to block them.

4. Don’t be embarrassed to share your experience.

Kerksie recognizes the embarrassment and shame associated with being scammed. “I’ve seen people from all walks of life and education who have fallen for scams,” she says. “By not telling anyone about these things, the bad guys will be successful.” Rather than keep your experience to yourself, tell others about what happened. You could save a friend, co-worker or neighbor from suffering similar losses.

Scammers aren’t slowing down their tactics and malicious calls anytime soon. They’ll continue to update their schemes and search for more innovative ways to steal money, identities, and trust. By educating yourself, taking steps to protect your information and using scam protection tools like T-Mobile’s Scam Shield, you can take the first step to reduce the possibility of being scammed.