Phone spam is the bane of the telecommunications industry. By some FCC estimates, spam phone calls make up close to 25% of all phone traffic in the US. Both legal regulation and private business have tried to combat the problem, but nothing seems to be completely effective. As a result, Consumer Reports have found that over 70% of phone users no longer bother answering a phone number they don’t recognize.
Not only are spam phone calls a nuisance, but a majority of them are scams as well. Phone scams mainly target taxpayers, debtors, retirees, and anyone who can be easily intimidated. Phone scammers will pretend to be the police, a debt collector, the IRS, a bank, or any other entity they think will trick people into falling for a scam.
Use a reverse phone lookup service to check the number. Phone scammers can make widespread calls to millions of numbers per second, so most scams get caught and reported to online databases quickly.
Avoid answering calls from unknown numbers. You can always screen calls to voicemail, where you can check in case there was a legitimate call made. If you do accidentally answer an unknown number, simply hang up immediately.
If you answer a call and the caller tells you to press a button to avoid getting calls in the future, just hang up instead. The same goes for any other instructions, such as asking questions requiring a yes-or-no answer. Scammers use this tactic to confirm that a live person is answering, and may record your voice to fake acknowledgment to a scam later.
Do not, under any circumstances, give away personal information to an unknown caller, especially not bank account or identification data. Do not let anyone pressure you for information.
If the caller claims to represent a government agency or company, hang up and look up their number from an official source, such as the agency’s or company’s website or the phone directory, then call to inquire about the call. As a rule, most government departments, utilities, and financial institutions will never just “cold call” to your number.
Be sure to set up a password for your voicemail service. By default, some voicemail services do not have one set.
Be extra alert during times of the year when phone scammers are more active. Peak phone scam times include tax season (preying on consumers who have received a tax return), graduation time (preying on students nervous about loan debt), and the holidays.
Resist the temptation to answer spam calls just to play games with them. There are people who record “reverse pranks” and upload them to social media for a joke, but phone scammers are savvy to these tactics and will try to trick you anyway.
US residents can register with the Do Not Call government list. This does prevent legitimate telemarketers from calling your number, but of course, scammers will ignore it.
Check with your service provider and mobile app store for tools to block unwanted calls. Apple and Android phones both come with apps to block certain numbers. All the major phone carriers also offer features to block unwanted calls. These are all free to use.
If you confirm that a spam caller is pretending to be from a source such as a company or government agency, it’s helpful to report it to them.
If all else fails and you’re unlucky enough to have a widely targeted number, the latest models of mobile phones offer a “DND” (Do Not Disturb) mode, which allows you to set up a “white list.” This blocks all calls except the few numbers you select to allow.
Common phone scams
Spam callers will typically claim to be one of the following in their ruses:
- The IRS – Threatening you with liens, fines, audits, etc. The IRS does not call taxpayers; they communicate through the mail.
- Tech support – Claiming to need your password to fix your computer, bank account, or phone. No tech-support desk just calls people out of the blue.
- The police – Threatening you with arrest, raids, and so on. Unless you’re an actual felon, no law enforcement agency calls you.
- A charity – False again. Real-life charities do not telemarket. If you want to give to a charity, go through their official channels.
- Credit card companies and banks – When you set up an account, the representative will offer you guidelines about their policies, which preclude any actual scenario like this from happening.
- A relative or loved one needing help – It’s easy enough to hang up and call whomever they claimed to be to verify whether or not an actual emergency happened.