Scam calls that elicit your sensitive information and steal your money are running rampant. Be aware of some of the most common phone scams and find out what you should and shouldn’t do to stay safe.
If it seems like you’re getting more scam calls today than ever, you’re not alone. Even the savviest folks can fall victim to the latest phone scams. We’ve put together this detailed guide to help you:
- avoid being tricked by the newest phone scams,
- tell you how to report phone scams,
- show you how to protect yourself if you have already fallen victim to a recent phone scam, and
- help you prevent your personal information exposure that leads to these calls.
The Scope and Technology Behind Today’s Phone Scams
The Federal Trade Commission got more than 3.2 million consumer complaints in 2019 that included reports of social security phone scams, IRS phone scams, and cell phone scams. These calls were received on both landlines and smartphones. The fraudsters used a variety of techniques and technologies, including:
- Spoofing: Scammers make the caller ID look like it was coming from a trusted source such as a government agency, bank, or other familiar entity.
- Vishing: Sometimes in combination with spoofing the caller ID, criminals trick the victim by impersonating a trusted organization, familiar tech company, charity, or even relatives such as grandchildren. They often try to get financial information, private details, or even immediate payment.
- Robocalls: Recorded messages are used for the entire call or to ensure the recipient is on the line before transferring to a live operator.
Types of Phone Scams
Tech Support Phone Scams
Tech support phone scams target everyone. Criminals impersonate technical companies and try to extort money for fake support. They also install viruses and data-stealing software on people’s computers. Scammers may call and say they are from a known company and pretend to help you fix your slow computer or other problems, but 100% of these calls are a fraud. No reputable company makes unsolicited calls to customers to help them with computer problems.
When you are making outbound calls to tech support:
- Be sure to get the phone number from a genuine source, such as the company’s website, a product sticker, or manual.
- Do not search Google for a company’s tech support number, since you might get a fake number from that search. Instead, go directly to their website by typing in their website address in the address bar of your computer to get contact numbers.
- Double-check the number as you dial it. In the USA, toll free-telephone numbers include 800, 833, 844, 855, 866, 877, and 888. Scammers have purchased other toll-free area codes with the same seven-digit phone number as real companies. They have set up sophisticated systems that will answer the phone and make it sound like you have connected to the legitimate tech company and then will fraud you. Dialing 800 instead of 855, or one digit off on the phone number may connect you directly to criminals!
Beware these recent phone scams involving big technological companies:
Amazon Phone Scams
Amazon is one of the world’s largest marketers, and almost everyone has used their service. Amazon states that they will never call people and ask for personal information. If you have questions about your Amazon account or services, they direct you to log into your Amazon account and click on “help” at the bottom of the screen. The company works to try to shut down phone scams if you report them to their agents.
Report these scam calls directly to Amazon.
Apple Scam Calls
Apple offers several tips for protecting your account and dealing with scam phone calls. They warn that scammers will often try to get victims to purchase iTunes gift cards as part of a scheme and that you should be wary of this request. Apple does not call users and ask for sensitive information. Nor does the company make iCloud scam calls. They don’t call iCloud users to advise of security breaches or other problems with their iCloud.
If you have issues with your iCloud, contact Apple.
Microsoft Scam Calls
Microsoft advises that they do not make unsolicited phone calls or request personal or financial information from users. There are many tech support scams where fraudsters will call and ask you if your computer is running slowly or tell you that they are from Microsoft and received information about a malfunction on your computer. These are also known as Windows phone scams, and they are always fraudulent.
Hang up whenever you receive these types of calls.
Google phone scams
Google does sometimes make unsolicited calls to promote their products or for non-sales tasks such as to make reservations for a customer. Additionally, they do make calls for development purposes and to support Google accounts. They offer some tips for recognizing legitimate Google calls and advise they will not ask for personal or financial information on outgoing calls.
If in doubt, hang up and contact Google through your Google applications. You may also make complaints to Google directly if you are being contacted through a Google product.
Be wary of any calls you get from tech support or customer service. They are almost always fraudulent. Many of these calls originate from India and are also known as Indian phone scams.
There are many great charities, but generally, the ones making unsolicited phone calls to you are not among them! Scammers will also misrepresent that they are part of governmental organizations collecting for heroes. For example, they might say they are collecting money for your local fire department.
Some less scrupulous charities may give a minimal amount of the money they collect to a real charity. Others may keep all of the funds or may just be using the call as a pretext to get your financial information.
Research charities on your own and give from your heart, but disconnect those that call you.
Travel or Prize Scams
Who doesn’t want a free vacation or a prize? Unfortunately, the scammers who call you and tell you that you need to pay registration, delivery, taxes, or other fees are fraudulent. They may be a pretext to steal your financial information or a trick to get you to buy into some scam that requires further payments from you.
Find out if the tempting offer is the real deal. Research the holiday accommodation provider that contacted you, look for reviews on the web. Also, try calling the company using contact details you’ve obtained independently.
Social Security Phone Scams
Social Security phone scams are a serious threat since they may compromise your identity. The Social Security Administration has warned people to watch out for fraudulent calls, texts, and emails. The SSA does sometimes contact people about programs and services, but does not threaten, suspend social security numbers, demand immediate payments, or ask for gift card numbers over the phone.
If you receive an SSA scam call, hang up and report it to the Social Security Office of the Inspector General.
Federal Student Loan Scams
Federal Student Aid reports how to spot the most frequent student loan phone scams:
- A debt relief company tries to enroll in a program that requires you to pay an upfront cost or monthly fees.
- Scammers promise you immediate loan forgiveness.
- Criminals try to get your FSA ID and password.
If you have fallen victim to any of these student loan phone scams, file a report of suspicious activity through the Federal Student Aid Complaint System.
IRS Scam Calls
The IRS has warned people to watch out for fraudulent calls, texts, and emails. IRS phone scams come in many flavors, including tax scam calls. Criminals will often impersonate the IRS and ask for gift cards or wire transfers under the threat of arrest or deportation. The IRS also has detailed information on how to determine if someone contacting you is an agent. The service initiates most contacts through US postal mail and will not threaten you with arrest over the phone.
Call the IRS phone scams number at 800 366-4484 to report a tax scam call or any other IRS phone fraud.
Publishers Clearing House Phone Scams
PCH wants you to know that winning their contests are always free. One frequent Publisher Clearing House Phone Scams type of fraud call comes from magazine solicitors who tell you that if you buy from them, you will win. Another tells you that you must prepay taxes and then tries to collect gift cards or bank information from the victims. PCH does not call customers to buy magazines.
Submit a fraud/scam incident report if you are a victim of one of the Publishing Clearing House Phone Scams.
Medicare Phone Scams / Health Insurance Scam Calls
The Federal Communications Commission warns that health insurance scams are at their greatest during open enrollment periods. Some of these are phishing calls to get private, sensitive information. But a large number of calls are from fraudulent companies claiming to be associated with legitimate providers.
File a complaint with your state insurance commissioner’s office. If you have given sensitive information to a scammer or they called and already knew your private information, you may also want to file an identity theft report with the FTC. Medicare phone scams can affect both your identity and your health insurance, so be on guard against them.
FBI Phone Scams
The FBI warns of multiple scams that target victims with calls claiming to be from their offices. Criminals will often spoof the caller ID to appear to be coming from an FBI office. Victims may be told there is a federal warrant for their arrest, which could be stopped by immediate payment. There are variations on this, which also ask for money to be sent for protection with the promise it would be returned later after a new social security number is issued. The FBI also lists useful information about avoiding telemarketing fraud and reporting phone scams.
The FBI does not make calls asking for money, and if you are the victim of fraudsters engaged in these phone scams, file a complaint at the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Verizon and AT&T Phone Scams
Cell phone carriers warn people to be on the lookout for phishing attempts where criminals call you and try to get your personal information. Then they will open up cell phone accounts in your name or even move your phone number to a different account. This makes it easier for them to access your bank account and other institutions that use two-factor authentication. Verizon phone scams and other new phone scams often originate with these types of calls. Your operating system does not matter. Criminals can execute Microsoft phone scams and Apple phone scams with the same methods.
Enable spam call filters provided by your carrier or use call-blocking mobile apps. They will help to identify and block potential scam calls.
US Treasury Phone Scams
The US Department of the Treasury advises criminals are purporting to be from the Treasury Department and may offer grant money in exchange for making a payment to them. Another scam demands a payment to prevent an arrest. The Treasury Department does not provide grant money in exchange for payment nor call threatening to arrest people.
Report these calls to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Utility-Related Scam Calls
Scammers may call people and tell them their gas, water, electricity, or other service is about to be shut off unless they make an immediate payment. They will then try to get victims to pay them with gift card numbers, wire transfers, prepaid cards, or other suspicious methods.
If you are in doubt about the status of your utility payments, contact your provider directly with a phone number from your bill or their website.
One Ring Phone Scams
Mauritania Phone Scams and Jamaican Phone Scams may involve calling your number and hanging up. Then when you call back, you incur huge fees. Some three-digit area codes (284, 809, and 876) are toll calls to the Caribbean Islands, and 222 routes to Mauritania, Africa.
Never call back unknown numbers that do not leave messages, particularly from the area codes we listed.
How To Protect Yourself Against Scam Calls
- Act proactively and remove your sensitive information from people-search sites. These sites are a goldmine of your personal and contact details for telemarketers and scammers.
You can do it manually by sending an opt-out request to the people-search engines exposing your info. Here are our detailed removal instructions for 100+ sites. Be warned that manual removal may take a lot of time as these websites’ opt-out procedures are often confusing. You must also follow-up and revisit all sites regularly to ensure your profile does not reappear. If you would like to make it easy on yourself, try OneRep. Our automated privacy protection tool will scan 106 sites, delete your unwanted profiles from the ones that expose your data, and continuously monitor the web for more information to remove, so you do not have to check regularly.
- Sign Up for the Do Not Call List. The Federal Trade Commission runs the National Do Not Call Registry, which is effective in reducing some of the unsolicited calls. It won’t stop all spam calls, especially the ones that originate from outside the United States. But it will greatly reduce the amount of legitimate sales calls. So if a company is still calling you after you are on the DNC Registry, you should be even more suspicious of them.
- While it is not recommended that you stay on the line with unsolicited telemarketing calls, if you choose to engage the caller, take the call at your own pace and do not feel pressured or rushed. If you need questions answered or want the caller to slow down and they do not comply, hang up.
- If in doubt about the legitimacy of a call, tell the company you will call them back and then find a phone number directly at their website and call them back.
- Some of the automated robocalls may be from government agencies such as schools or emergency warning systems. However, when a robocall tells you they are calling from the IRS to extend your car warranty or are anything other than an informational service, hang up immediately. Staying on the line to tell them to “take you off the list” is rarely effective, and it wastes your time and allows the scammers to trick you.
- Never give any private or financial information during an incoming call, even if the caller says they already have it.
- Do not commit to a donation or to buy anything from an unsolicited incoming call. You can always call the company back via a known telephone number you retrieve from their website.
- Never buy any gift cards or send money in response to an unsolicited call.
- Do not rely on caller ID. The scammers can make it appear they are calling from whatever name and number they want.
- Don’t install software or go to websites that unsolicited callers tell you to visit. Merely visiting a website can infect your computer with malware.
- Never call unknown numbers back. Scammers sometimes ring once and hang up, knowing you will call back out of curiosity or because you think you missed the call. You may incur tolls and fees charged to your phone number just for dialing the number (even if it does not appear to be a long-distance number or you have free long distance).
More useful tips on how to avoid phone scams here: De-Spam Your Phone: How to Stop Robocalls, Scam and Spam Calls and Texts.
How to Report Phone Scams
As we mentioned above, some of the large companies ask that you report scammers that impersonate their businesses to them. This is helpful because if there are trends, they may warn customers or take other steps to help shut down the scammers. In addition to contacting the company being impersonated, you may want to report scams to the following agencies:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Federal Trade Commission
Internal Revenue Service
FAQ About Phone Scams
Are phone scams legal?
No. Unfortunately, many of these calls originate outside of the United States, so this makes it difficult to shut down their operations. Nevertheless, reporting phone scams may help protect others.
What are mobile phone scams?
All of the scams covered in this guide can apply to mobile phones. Mobile phones may be attacked in some other ways too:
scammers may lock a phone and prevent it from being used until a ransom is paid,
send SMS texts that appear to be from a legitimate source but are not,
program another phone to seem like your phone (called cloning), and
use apps to copy your private data like passwords and banking information.
The Federal Communications Commission offers some helpful information about mobile phone scams, including Windows Phone Scams and Apple Phone Scams.
Can phone scams use your voice?
The FCC has warned consumers that scammers may record your voice saying “yes” at any point during a call and then later use the recording to authorize fraudulent charges.
What should I do if a scammer calls me?
The best thing to do is hang up. You can also report the call to the FCC. Check the “How to Report Phone Scams” section above for more information (hyperlink).
Can you report phone scams to the police?
Generally, local police are not involved in investigating phone scams. However, if the caller makes threats, you may contact the police. If you are confused about where to report phone scams, check out our section on How to Report Phone Scams.
How do you know if you’re being scammed on your phone?
Know that most of the unsolicited calls you receive are likely scams and trust your gut. If you are ever in doubt, end the call and dial the company back directly using a number from their website.
What happens if you answer a call from your number?
Scammers can make any name and phone number appear on a caller ID. Try not to answer such calls, and hang up immediately if you connect by accident.
Can scam callers hack your phone?
Any phone number may be spoofed to make your name and number show up on a victim’s caller ID to make them think you are calling them. Mobile phones may be attacked in some other ways too.
What phone numbers are scams?
Any incoming call can be a scam. Scammers can make caller ID information appear to be anything. Some three-digit area codes such as 284, 809, and 876 are toll calls to the Caribbean Islands and may incur large fees billed to your phone. Africa also runs this “one ring” scam with a 222 area code. 900 calls are also billed to your phone.
Can a scammer use your phone number?
Yes, this is called “spoofing” and makes your name and number show up on a victim’s caller ID to make them think you are calling them.
After reading this guide, you may not want to answer the phone anymore. However, if you are cautious and take the proper preventative steps, you can avoid falling victim to scammers.
Here are some things you may choose to do right now to be proactive:
- Bookmark this page for easy reference and future updates. Please share it with your friends and family so they can be protected too.
- Remove your personal and contact details from the internet people-search sites. Telemarketers and scammers frequently use these sites to harvest your data before making calls. OneRep offers a 5-day free trial to automatically delete your sensitive information.
- Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website regularly to stay aware of the initiatives the government is taking to protect people against all types of scams.
Always remember that whenever in doubt, you can hang up!