Americans have lost more than $10 billion to phone scams. These 10 signs could help you avoid becoming a statistic.
Calls from people who are trying to steal your money, personal data or financial information are all too common.
According to a report by Truecaller, Americans reported receiving 32 spam calls in an average month, indicating spam calls have soared by 39% since 2018. In 2019 alone, Americans lost $10 billion due to phone scams.
It’s not always so easy to detect a fraudulent call, however. Scammers tend to be very good at what they do and are shifting to a “quality over quantity” approach, according to a report by First Orion. By employing more sophisticated tactics, like calling from a familiar number, scammers increase the probability of you answering your phone.
Scammers also typically play the numbers game – they ring hundreds or thousands of people a day until they eventually land on the right person. Perhaps you do have something in collections, or really have avoided paying a large tax bill or entered a sweepstakes for a three-day Caribbean cruise and are expecting a call. In that case, you just might give them what they’re after.
While organizations like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are working to alleviate the stress of spam phone calls, there are ways to be proactive and notice the telltale signs. Here are the top 10 signs that you’re talking to a scammer.
See related: Federal government, lawmakers aim to tackle robocall nuisance
10 signs you’re talking to a scammer
- Odd-looking phone number
- Delayed greeting
- Caller can’t communicate
- Caller says there’s a problem with an unknown account
- The tone of the conversation becomes heated
- You have to identify yourself
- Caller uses a generic greeting
- The call starts with threats or dire warnings
- You need to act fast to take advantage of an offer
- Responses are canned
1. Odd-looking phone number
Be highly suspicious when the area code is 473. It appears domestic but is actually associated with Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. Unless you know someone from these countries, odds are it’s a scam call.
Plenty of fraudsters are domestic, though, says Charity Lacey, vice president of communications of the Identity Theft Resource Center. The area code may be genuinely from the U.S., but don’t trust the caller when the start of the next three numbers are “0” or “1,” as it’s probably not associated with a real person or company.
2. Delayed greeting
If you answer but the person on the other end doesn’t respond right away, chances are they used an automatic dialer.
“You’ll hear nothing, clicking or a series of tones before an actual human gets on the line,” says Lacey. “Scammers make countless calls, hoping a person will answer, and when someone does it takes them a while to respond.”
This is why Mark Jeffery, a custom builder who lives in New York City, wastes no time with them.
“I don’t usually pick up calls that are not in my contacts, but when I do and the caller doesn’t speak right away, they’re gone,” says Jeffery. “So, if you’re calling me, you better speak real quick.”
3. Caller can’t communicate
It’s one thing to have an accent, but quite another to have virtually no command of the English language.
“Legitimate companies do use foreign call centers all the time, but when they do, the employees are vetted,” says Lacey. “They will almost always have fairly decent English proficiency. If the person can’t piece together an understandable sentence at all and is telling you he’s from AT&T or some other large American company, you’re right to be highly doubtful.”
4. Caller says there’s a problem with an unknown account
A sure signal that a scammer has reached you is if they say there is a problem with your credit product or utility provider – but you don’t have an account with that company. At first, you may be confused and wonder if it could be for an old account you’ve forgotten about. Don’t take the bait.
“If a call comes in from a vendor or company that you don’t do business with, that’s your cue to simply hang up,” says personal security expert Robert Siciliano, CEO of Safr.Me.
5. The tone of the conversation becomes heated
At first, the person you’re speaking with may sound normal, so you won’t suspect anything is wrong. Yet when it starts to seem off and you question the nature of the call, the so-called representative becomes irritable or even belligerent. It’s an intimidation tactic and a major red flag.
“An uninvited phone call where the person becomes hostile is a reason to hang up,” says Siciliano. “It is also a reason to block that number to prevent that person from calling you again.”
6. You have to identify yourself
No, you don’t. That person called you, so they should know who you are. If they tell you to provide personal data so the conversation can continue – especially your name, Social Security number, address and account numbers – you’re on the line with someone hoping to bilk you.
“A legitimate company will never ask you to provide that kind of information, so do not give it out,” says Shawn Lane, a credit expert and COO of FRS Credit Repair.
If you’re concerned about the account that person mentioned, hang up and call the company to find out if there’s a problem – and to report the scam.
7. Caller uses a generic greeting
Another sign that a person could be a scammer is if they address you generically. If they know who you are, they will greet you with your name.
“I’ve been getting calls that start with ‘Hello Citizen!’,” says Dara Avenius, founder of Fascinate Media.
Although funny (especially for someone in public relations who understands the importance a personal greeting), it’s also a dead giveaway that your phone number is on a list of potential marks or the scammer is dialing randomly.
8. The call starts with threats or dire warnings
Mark Hankins, a consumer finance attorney based in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, can spot a fraudulent call when it begins ominously.
“I’ve gotten calls from IRS impersonators telling me I needed to pay $3,000 or I would be arrested,” says Hankins. “I told them to send someone over.”
Hankins isn’t the only one receiving these types of calls, though.
“When my 91-year-old mom gets them, it makes me angry,” he says. “People try to take advantage of the elderly and I give them a real earful. She has given scammers enough information that we felt a credit card or bank account was at risk and we needed to go through the hassle of changing numbers.”
9. You need to act fast to take advantage of an offer
“Scammers will often play on your emotion,” says Lacey. “If you don’t do something now, you’ll miss out. Sometimes they’re legit, but you have to take time to question it. Maybe you did enter a contest and win a prize. Great, explain that you will call the company back. If they say no, and you have to decide now, it’s a scam.”
This includes debt settlement offers that are only available that day.
“If they start talking about a ‘new government program’ that will help with your bills, there is no such thing,” says Lane.
10. Responses are canned
When you’re on the phone, you may think that you’re discussing matters with a human – particularly when they’re using your name and the sentence structure is natural. Listen closely for responses that follow a precise pattern.
“This is what’s known as a deepfake,” says Lacey. “Bots use real-sounding voices and are cued to pause at certain times during the conversation and say ‘um’ or ‘let me check on that for you.’”
It’s just a recording, but it can trick you into providing your credit card numbers and other private information, which it will capture and exploit.
“An easy way to find out is to say something off the wall,” says Lacey. “Respond to one of the questions with ‘pickle’ or add in another nonsensical word. A human will react; a bot won’t.”
It always pays to be vigilant and aware of the calls that come your way, so pay attention and keep your guard up. Only answer calls that are from familiar numbers – and even then, you need to be cautious. Let the rest go to voicemail. In the event you do detect fraud, either because you spoke with the scammer or because the number is indeed suspicious, block the caller.
Finally, take the extra step and report the scam to the FTC or call 1-877-382-4357. The more information you give them about the type of interactions you’re experiencing, the better they can help others avoid becoming victims.