Scam Phone Calls: Hang Up, Look Up, and Call Back

How to recognize a scam phone call and what to do next: Internet Scambusters #927

Millions of scam phone calls are made every day — enough to ensure that every so often they hit home and find a victim.

But it needn’t be that way — if you can recognize a potential scam call and simply hang up and use your own resources to check if it’s legit.

In this week’s issue, we’ll explain the simple rules for sidestepping those calls, identify the warning signs of a scam, and what you can do to put a stop to them.

Let’s get started…


Scam Phone Calls: Hang Up, Look Up, and Call Back


Scam phone calls — anyone who tells you they’ve never had one probably doesn’t have a phone! The truth is that no one is safe.

Scammers make millions of calls every day — most of them automated and all of them trying to get their hands on your money, either directly or through identity theft.

The most common include imposter scams (pretending to be someone they’re not), debt relief tricks, business and investment scams, fake charity calls, overpriced and often useless extended car warranties, free trials that trap victims into recurring payments, loan scams, timeshares and, of course, fake prize and lottery scams.

Sometimes, the crooks are so clever they even fool people who think they would never get scammed.

A case in point recently quoted by Brian Krebs — possibly the foremost authority on Internet scams — involved a guy who took a sophisticated imposter call from someone posing as his financial institution, warning of a possible fraud on his account.

The guy, who Krebs calls “Mitch,” was sharp enough to log onto his account during the call and confirmed unauthorized transactions. And cautious checks with subsequent calls seemed to confirm he was dealing with his bank. But he wasn’t. Over the course of a week, the crooks built up a convincing case they were genuine, which allowed them to extract thousands of dollars from their victim.

You can read the full story here. But the point Krebs makes is that even the most security-conscious, tech-savvy person can still be caught out by a scam phone call.

“Many security-conscious people probably think they’d never fall for a phone-based phishing scam,” says Krebs “But if your response to such a scam involves anything other than hanging up and calling back the entity that claims to be calling, you may be in for a rude awakening.”

Sadly, many people fail to follow this simple advice, often being tricked by callers who may be friendly (as Mitch’s was) or threatening.

How to Recognize a Phone Scam

The first thing to know about scam phone calls is that you can’t rely on caller ID on your phone to tell you who’s really calling. Although we’ve warned about this before, people are still fooled when their phone announces that a call is from a certain person, number, or location that they think is legitimate.

Crooks use computers to trick home and cell phone systems into announcing whatever information the scammers want — like pretending the call is coming from your hometown, your friend, or the local police department.

The second thing to know is that just because your name and number are on the Do Not Call registry, that must mean an incoming call is legitimate… NOT. Scammers don’t care about the registry or the fact that most robocalls (with automatic recorded messages) are illegal. They’re crooks after all. The law means nothing to them.

Knowing that, you should be wary about any incoming call. In fact, some people prefer to never answer calls but have their answering service pick it up so they can then review whether they want to return the call.

However, even that doesn’t stop scammers. They may still leave messages, often intimidating ones, trying to force you to respond. So, here are some of the other tactics crooks use that signal a likely scam phone call.

  • You’ve been “selected” for some sort of special offer or won a prize. You haven’t.
  • You’ll be arrested or jailed for some alleged crime to do with debts, taxes, fines etc. if you don’t pay up. That’s always a scam. Genuine organizations like the police, courts, or IRS don’t phone people and threaten jail. Even an intimidating debt collector has no power to put you behind bars.
  • You must decide now to take advantage of some type of offer. Even if this were true, what kind of shoddy organization would use high-pressure tactics like that? It’s probably a scam.
  • You have to pay by wiring money or buying gift cards. No legitimate organization operates that way. Period.
  • You’re asked to confirm sensitive or confidential information, like account numbers and passwords. No legitimate organization would ask you to do this on an unsolicited call.

Stop the Scam Phone Calls

“Even if it’s not a scammer calling, if a company is calling you illegally, it’s not a company you want to do business with,” says the US Federal Trade Commission.

“When you get a robocall, don’t press any numbers. Instead of letting you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, it might lead to more robocalls.”

As Krebs says, the simplest action you can take is to hang up. If you think the call might have been genuine, still hang up, look up the number of the organization that’s supposed to have called, and then call back.

But there are also call-blocking services and devices that can eliminate or at least reduce the incidence of scam phone calls. Some of these are available from phone service providers — check with them — but you can also buy call blockers for about $100 or less that attach to your phone.

Most of these use a database of known scam call numbers, while some also use software to detect if the incoming call is a robocall.

No doubt crooks will continue the scam phone call onslaught but some common sense and the use of call blocking services and devices will stop most of them in their tracks.

Alert of the Week

Ignore messages you might be seeing on social media that appear to come from top-name retailers like Walmart and Target, offering help for people in financial difficulties because of the Covid pandemic.

They offer coupons, grants, and even direct food supplies, and sometimes ask you to share the plan with friends.

Sadly, they’re nothing but phishing scams — attempts to steal personal information about you.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!