“Can you hear me?”
Pause before speaking if a caller starts by asking, “Can you hear me?” Scammers are looking for a specific answer, says Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of Identity Theft Resource Center. “By getting you to answer ‘yes’ to that one question at the very beginning of the call—as opposed to somewhere in the middle of the conversation, where dubbing would be more obvious—scammers can record your affirmative answer,” she says. They can use that recording to claim you agreed to pay for some scam program. Even if it looks like the call is from someone you know, rephrase your answer to “I hear you just fine” to be safe, suggests Velasquez. Here's how to protect yourself online
to avoid being scammed.
Don’t freak out if someone claiming to be from the IRS calls to collect money. Scammers use fear tactics and threaten to send the police if you don’t pay up immediately, but don’t fall for it. “The only way the IRS will get in touch with you is in the mail, on official letterhead,” says cybersecurity expert
John Sileo. Even if the callers don't ask for money, they could prey on your information by ask you to verify your identity. They might quote information you’d think only the IRS could know, like what you paid in taxes last year, but that doesn’t mean you can trust them with your Social Security number. Hang up and call a phone number you can verify online, says Sileo.
The IRS will never call, but your bank might, which makes it harder to figure out if it’s the real deal. Plus, it makes sense that your bank would need to confirm your identity to protect your account. If your bank calls and asks you to confirm if transactions are legitimate, feel free to give a yes or no. But don’t give up any more information than that, says Adam Levin, founder of global identity protection and data risk services firm CyberScout and author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves
. Some scammers rattle off your credit card number and expiration date, then ask you to say your security code as confirmation, he says. Others will claim they froze your credit card because you might be a fraud victim, then ask for your Social Security number. Only give that kind of information out if you
made the call—and don’t just use the number that contacted you. “Flip your credit card or debit card over, look at the number, call customer service and ask if you guys just called me,” says Levin. “They have on the computer if they did or didn’t.”
Ever rush to answer your phone, only to realize the caller hung up after one ring? Don’t let the curiosity get the best of you and call back, even if the number looks familiar. Robo calls can spoof local area codes or names of specific banks and other organizations. Calling back verifies your number belongs to a real person, plus shows you’re the type of person who will return a call from an unknown number, says Velasquez. Now you’re at risk for scammers to call back another time, she says. Even if a real person does answer, keep your wits about you, says Sileo. “What they’ve done is reversed the trust principle,” he says. “When they’re calling you, you have that natural inclination not to trust. When you’re calling them, you’re taking action.” You forget why you called in the first place, so you're more likely to fall for scam questions asking for information or money, he says. (Learn more ways con artists win your trust
.) And that call back could cost you, even if they don’t ask for anything. You might be calling a 900 number—often a sex line—that could charge you $17 for the first minute and $9 more per minute after that, says Levin. Let any unknown number go straight to voicemail, he says. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message.
A call from a kidnapper who supposedly has a loved one is horrifying, but stay calm. Sounds heartless, but don’t jump to give ransom, even if you hear screams in the background. It could be a scammer preying on your fear. First try to contact your loved one, who hopefully will answer the phone. Be extra skeptical if the kidnapper tries to keep you on the line to make sure you’ve got the cash. “Rule of thumb with kidnappers is they get off the phone as quickly as possible,” says Levin. “Any who wants to stay on the phone with you through the process is not a kidnapper—they’re a scammer.”
If someone claiming to be from Microsoft, Apple, or another tech company calls to ask if you’ve had computer problems, just say no and hang up. “No one is ‘watching’ your computer for signs of a virus,” says Velasquez. Those scammers won’t fix the problem—they’ll make it worse by installing malware, says Sileo. What’s worse, you might not connect those later problems to that scam call. The fake tech support put it in your head that your computer is slow, so you might think it’s normal when you notice it's lagging later on, he says. Find out how fake apps could be stealing your data
Scammers sometimes target elderly people, pretending to be a grandchild. On a crackly line, they’ll say they’re in trouble—maybe they lost their wallet in a foreign country—and need you to send money, says Levin. Unless you can confirm it's actually a relative, don't give any money. “If you are truly concerned, gather the appropriate information from the scammers and hang up,” says Velasquez. “Confirm your grandchild’s safety before doing anything else.” Learn more about protecting an older loved one from a money scam
Congrats, you just won a million dollars! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That big cash prize or amazing vacation sounds too tempting to ignore, but real contests only enter you if you ask. “In a legitimate lottery or sweepstakes, you have to enter the contest somehow,” says Velasquez. “If you ever ‘win’ a prize that you didn’t enter—especially one with a prize worth millions of dollars—you’re probably being scammed.” Even if you did enter the lottery, don't trust a supposed tax collector. You would need to pay taxes on your winnings eventually, but never before you receive the money, says Velasquez.
When charities, political parties, and lobbyists request donations over the phone, show some healthy skepticism. “Some will be legitimate. Many will not,” says Levin. “Risk being rude and saying you will call back, or say ‘Then send me something. I want to read about it.’” If it is a cause you care about, do a little digging online to figure out if it’s a real charity or the actual political party. Even legitimate charities might not live up to their good-deed claims though. Verify from a third party like charitynavigator.org, which rates organizations on factors like how much of each donation goes to the cause vs. administrative costs, suggests Levin. Read more about what to know before donating money
Some scammers claim they’re from the jury commission. When they ask for your Social Security number to confirm if you’re eligible for jury duty, don’t give away any information. “When it’s from an organization that sounds authentic, people tend to give it up,” says Levin. “You can’t give it up. You have to covet the information.”