file404/ShutterstockWe’ve all had it happen: You look at your phone and notice a missed call from a familiar-looking number that isn’t in your contacts. Your first instinct might be to call back and see who it was, but that’s the last thing you should do.
You might assume calling back is safe because a number happens to be from your area code. Is it your doctor? Your kid’s principal? A neighbor? Unfortunately, the answer is probably none of those, says Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout and author of Swiped. Scammers “are adept at spoofing phone numbers for caller ID purposes,” he says. So just because a number shares your area code doesn’t mean the caller is from your town.
Crooks purposely use familiar area codes to gain your trust. (Don’t miss these other sneaky ways con artists win your trust.) You’d probably ignore an 800 number, but a number that comes from your hometown seems more likely to be someone you know. “People are curious and they’re counting on that,” says Levin. “It’s the concept that people think may have missed an important call.”
At the very least, answering the phone or calling back makes you vulnerable to future scams (like these common phone scams), says Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of Identity Theft Resource Center. “When you call back not only are you verifying the number is attached to a real person but that you’re willing to make the effort in calling back an unknown number,” she says. “This puts you at risk for scammers to call you at a different time and try to scam you with another ploy.”
And at worst? For one thing, scammers could convince you to give out personal information, like your credit card or Social Security number. Even if you don’t give out personal information to the other line, though, that call could cost you major money. The numbers are sometimes hooked up with 900 numbers such as sex lines that charge by the minute—and it adds up fast, says Levin. “You’re paying $17 and change for the first minute, and $9 and change for every minute after that,” he says. Plus, even just answering this four-word phrase phone scammers use with a one-word reply could let them steal your money without asking for more information.
In general, you’re better off ignoring an unknown number and forgetting about it, says Velasquez. “Any important news will be left in your voicemail,” she says.
Be careful even if the person does leave a message, though. Just like scammers can pose as a credit card company when you answer, they can leave an important-sounding voicemail, too. So if your bank leaves a voicemail, don’t just call back the number from the missed call. Find the official number online and dial that, suggests Levin. “Never trust—always verify,” he says.
Want to get rid of some of the stress of calls from unknown numbers? Learn how to stop robocalls for good.