The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported receiving nearly a million complaints about fraudulent phone scams in 2018. Phone scams and spam are a growing problem in the mobile age since nearly everyone carries a phone now. Various regulatory agencies are doing everything they can to try to stop the tide, but it's a difficult problem to deal with due to widely available phone technology.
General Purpose Phone Safety
On the bottom line, the most assured way to avoid phone scams is to not answer the phone at all, screening all calls through voice mail. This isn't practical for most people, but a close second measure is to download a "white list" phone app. These are free or available from app stores or service providers for all major models of phones running all operating platforms. You can enter phone numbers on the white list, setting these numbers only as having the privilege to ring your phone, while all others go to voice mail.
Not answering calls from unknown numbers is also a good rule of thumb, but again, not always practical, particularly for those of us with a career hinging on phone usage. Another measure is to use reverse phone lookup services, which will help you sort known scammers from legitimate callers.
If you have to answer strange numbers, do not under any circumstances follow instructions asking for your personal details such as social security numbers. Also, avoid pressing numbers on robocalls because these automated systems are tracking responses to discover human activity. Simply hang up on any suspected scam call.
Your phone's app store or service provider also provides a free way to block phone calls on a number-by-number basis. This will stop numbers that dial you repeatedly.
As a rule, no agency, government service, or commercial business will ever call you out of the clear blue to demand your social security number or credit card information. Entities like banks and the IRS will never even contact you by phone unless they first contacted you by other means to set up a call or you requested the call from them.
Kinds of Common Phone Scams
One-ring calls - When a number calls you and leaves one ring, it can be a scam attempting to provoke you to call back to an international number, which attempts to charge you hefty fees for dialing certain numbers.
Posing as representatives or officials from government and commercial agencies. These can be any one of:
- bankers and credit card agencies
- tech support
- lottery officials
- health insurance workers
- the IRS
- bill and debt collectors
- charity workers
Various concocted scenarios may extend to claiming you owe someone money, claiming you've won money, tech support notifying you of an issue that can only be resolved by your credit card number, and endless other scams.
Another common kind of scam is the person posing as a telemarketer, a phenomenon which is starting to put real telemarketers out of business. The huge volume of scam calls makes it unwise to purchase anything over the phone, no matter how tempting the offer may be. Any free product trial, cash prize, pre-approved loan, debt reduction, or investment sales pitch is to be suspected.
One less-common scam method, which tries to prey on the elderly, is a person posing as a relative or loved one who is in some emergency scenario and needs assistance. If this happens and you have reason to suspect this is a real call, you can always hang up and redial that person at the number you know they use.
There are also peak seasons for phone scams. They tend to cluster around these times of the year:
- Tax season - preying on both people who have tax return money to spend, and people nervous about getting audited.
- Graduation season - Preying on fresh college graduates with heavy student loan debt.
- Holidays - Christmas shopping season might mean you're more willing to spend money, or so partied-out that your judgment is off-center.
Phone scams and spam calls aren't going away any time soon. The best policy is to err on the aspect of caution. By now, scam calls have received enough news coverage that even if you hang up on a legit call sometimes, that person should understand why and be able to take steps to prove their legitimacy.