Not too long ago, I had an experience that is increasingly common. I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize and answered it. The voice on the other end asked for me by name, then dropped my sister’s name and asked if I was her brother. He told me that he was with the police, that there was a warrant out for my sister’s arrest, that she needed to pay them to resolve the situation, and that I needed to have her call them as soon as possible. I told him I’d do that, hung up, and wondered “Since when do the cops let you pay to get rid of an arrest warrant?”
I never followed up on that legal question, assuming that the call must have been a scam. Turns out I was right, and that it’s a common one. The web abounds with stories of people getting similar calls from people pretending to be law enforcement or, even more frighteningly, the IRS, claiming that you owe unpaid taxes and that you need to pay up.
If you get one of these calls, they’re not actually from the IRS — as the IRS itself explains, if you owe taxes, the agency will mail you an official notice, rather than shaking you down over the phone — they are scammers, and for them, business is booming. That’s because advances in technology have allowed scammers to place billions of calls a month, and they can even disguise their phone numbers in the process. The two tools that have made this all possible are robocalls and number spoofing. Here’s how they work.
Attack of the robocalls: A crime of convenience
Robocalls are simply prerecorded messages; they’ve been in use for a long time, for valid reasons. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), robocalls are acceptable for purposes such as “to let you know your flight’s been cancelled, reminders about an appointment, or messages about a delayed school opening.” However, the FTC strictly forbids businesses calling people to “promote the sale of any goods or services.” So why are so many spam and scam calls happening these days?
“Spoofing,” is a process where a caller ensures that their number shows up differently on caller ID.
For starters, it’s become much easier, thanks to technological advances. Telemarketers are no longer bound by landlines; voice over IP (VoIP) services have enabled telemarketers to spit out a deluge of calls, rolling down the list through every number they can find, with little effort or cost.
If you answer one of these calls, a few things could happen. A prerecorded message might play, offering you fabulous prizes like a free vacation, or an attractive service like reducing the interest rates on a credit card, inviting you to press a number and speak to a live operator. They could also take a more sinister approach, impersonating law enforcement and scaring you into paying them. Although these scams may seem ridiculous, they can work
The aggressive nature of the call can make people panic, and often scammers will have information on their target (like a home address) to make the call seem more legitimate. Given that individual scammers can cheaply make hundreds or even thousands of calls a day, they only need relatively few people to bite.
Spoofing: Phone numbers in disguise
One of the strangest things you may have noticed about robocalls is that they come from numbers that look a lot like your own. The area code and even the first three digits might match yours, leading you to think you’re getting a call from someone nearby, like a local business or coworker. Then you answer, only to hear a prerecorded message or human scammer on the other end.
This is called “spoofing,” a process by which a caller ensures that their number shows up differently on caller ID. The technology itself is legal, and has legitimate uses (for instance, if you need to make a business call on a personal phone and want your office number to show up on the other end). However, when it comes to telemarketing, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that companies must use their own phone numbers.
An unfortunate side effect of scammers spoofing phone numbers is that they might use a number currently in use, which can result in some headaches for the owner of that number. If a scammer disguises their number with your own to target someone in your area, that person might call you back, thinking your number is the scammer’s.
What can you do to protect yourself?
Although agencies like the FTC and FCC are cracking down on scammers, the wave is only going to swell. According to a report by First Orion, scam calls rose “from 3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018 — and that number is projected to reach 44.6 percent by early 2019.”
The best thing to do is to simply avoid answering calls from unknown numbers.
There isn’t much you can do to stop scam calls, unfortunately. You can put your number on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry, which ostensibly prevents telemarketers from calling, but only legitimate businesses are going to respect it.
Scammers are already breaking the law, and many of them are based outside the U.S. anyway, so they probably don’t care about the penalties for violating the Do Not Call list.
Blocking numbers isn’t always effective, as scammers switch phone numbers frequently. The best thing to do is to simply avoid answering calls from unknown numbers, especially if the number is suspiciously similar to your own.
If you do answer a call from a scammer, do not give up any personal information, even if they already seem to know a lot about you. Remember that if a government or law enforcement agency needs to contact you, they’ll send you notice in writing, or show up at your door.
Lastly, while it may seem fun to answer and mess with the scammer on the other end — there are a few videos on YouTube of people doing this — it can cause more problems than it’s worth. For one thing, merely by answering, you’re letting the caller know that your number belongs to someone who is willing to answer, which could lead to more calls down the line
Even worse, there are scams in which the caller tries to get victims to answer questions, recording their voice when they answer. The scammer then uses the victim’s voice signature to “to pretend to be the consumer and authorize fraudulent charges via telephone.” The best way to avoid getting scammed is not to talk to the scammers at all.
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