15 Common Phone Scams to Look Out For—and How to Avoid Them
Scammers are sneakier than you might think, so you need to know how to protect your money and your information
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How the scam works: Somebody will call you pretending to be from the FBI. They might say that there’s a warrant out for your arrest, or demand payment and threaten serious consequences like legal proceedings, property forfeiture or asset freezing if you don’t pay up. The scammer may even spoof their phone number to make it look like it is coming from the real FBI phone number. These are all intimidation tactics to try to get you to panic and wire money—this is an attempt at wire fraud, and the threats are fake, exploiting your fear of being in trouble with the government.
How to avoid it: The FBI will never call to threaten to arrest you or demand payment. They won’t ask for wire transfers or gift cards, and they won’t call you about “problems” with your Social Security number. Never give out your Social Security number or financial information over the phone. If you think you have been contacted by the FBI, call their official phone number and confirm. If the call you got was a threat with a demand for money, it was most likely a phone scam.
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Cryptocurrency and QR code
How the scam works: This scam can take a variety of forms: a government impersonator, a romance scam, a fake utility company and more. Whatever their story, they will ask you for money—in the form of cryptocurrency. The scammer will stay on the phone with you as you go somewhere with a crypto ATM, where you use cash or credit to buy cryptocurrency. Then the scammer will send you a QR code, which is a kind of barcode that works on your phone. The QR code they send you has their digital address embedded in it; when you scan the code, it sends your crypto to them and you lose your money. This is only one form of crypto scam; there are dozens of others.
How to avoid it: Never send money to someone you don’t know or haven’t met in person. Scammers like crypto because it’s an instant transfer of funds, and there’s no way to get your money back. Always be wary when someone asks for payment in cryptocurrency, and think twice before sending any kind of payment to someone asking for money.
Next, learn how to make a private phone call and keep your phone number safe.
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Nanny or caregiver
How the scam works: If you are a nanny or caregiver, you may have your services listed on an online job site. While this is a great way to find work, it can also open you to scams. One phone scam is to send you an offer of employment. The “employer” sends you a check, and asks you to send them some money to buy assistive care items needed for the job. However, much like a romance scam, the person you are talking to isn’t really interested in you. After you’ve sent the money, the check will bounce and the “employer” will disappear. Not only do you not really have a job, you just sent money to a scammer and will not be reimbursed.
How to avoid it: Always verify any offers of employment. Does the employer have a trustworthy web presence, or can you not find any information about them? Always verify that a check has cleared before spending any money, and don’t send money to an employer before you even start working there. Think about it—if they can’t afford equipment, how can they pay you?
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection
How the scam works: This phone scam works similarly to FBI imposter scams. You get a call purporting to be from an agent with U.S. Customs. They say that illegal items that were shipped in your name were intercepted, and now there is a warrant out for your arrest. They will ask for money in the form of wire transfers, crypto or gift cards to make the legal trouble you are supposedly in go away. But don’t fall for it! You’re not in any trouble at all, and the whole thing is a scam.
How to avoid it: Customs and Border Protection will never call to threaten to arrest you or demand payment. They won’t ask for wire transfers or attempt gift card scams, and they won’t call you about “problems” with shipping activity. If you think you have been contacted by Customs and Border Protection, call their official phone number and confirm. If the call you got was a threat with a demand for money, it was most likely a phone scam.
“Can you hear me?”
How the scam works: 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.
How to avoid it: 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. For more phone scams, find out how to tell if the “iPhone virus warning” is a scam.
How the scam works: 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 asking 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.
How to avoid it: Hang up and call a phone number you can verify online, says Sileo. Never give your Social Security number out over the phone, and remember that the real IRS will never ask for wire transfers or gift cards. Don’t forget to watch out for these Cash App scams as well.
How the scam works: 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.
How to avoid it: 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.” Find out more about how to stop robocalls and spam calls for good.
How the scam works: 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. Robocalls 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. 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.
How to avoid it: Let any unknown number go straight to voicemail, he says. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message. And don’t call any unfamiliar numbers back, unless the caller identifies himself. There’s a lot that hackers can do with just your cell phone number.
How the scam works: A call from a kidnapper who supposedly has a loved one is horrifying, but stay calm. It 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.
How to avoid it: “Rule of thumb with kidnappers is they get off the phone as quickly as possible,” says Levin. “Anyone who wants to stay on the phone with you through the process is not a kidnapper—they’re a scammer.” Reach out to your loved one and anybody who might know where they are before panicking, and tell somebody that you got this phone call. If you have an iPhone, find out the iPhone privacy settings you should check right now.
How the scam works: 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.
How to avoid it: Ignore phone calls asking about your computer or talking about viruses. Install a good antivirus to protect your computer, and never click on sketchy links to protect your machine from digital threats. Then read up on phone scams to protect yourself and your computer from social engineering threats like tech support phonies. These are the tricks cyber scammers use to hack your stuff.
How the scam works: 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.
How to avoid it: 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.
How the scam works: 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.”
How to avoid it: 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. Don’t give any personal information to anyone claiming you won something you never entered, and never send “taxes” or other money to anybody before you have actually received payment. Also, be careful not to fall for this four-word phone scam.
How the scam works: This is similar to the “you’ve won” scam, but maybe a bit more believable. This one contacts you about a “foolproof” way to make a whole bunch of money, offering fake “coaching sessions,” “tutorials” and more. They’ll usually name specific—and enormous—amounts of money that you can make in a short amount of time, and they’ll guarantee it. In particular, scams that say you can make lots of money “working from home” have been pretty big, which of course makes sense, with remote work becoming increasingly common.
How to avoid it: If you receive a phone call with an “easy money at home” offer, especially if they’re telling you to send money, the FTC suggests looking up the “organization” followed by words like “scam” or “complaint” before pursuing it further—chances are good you’ll see it’s a scam. Or just hang up and ignore it. Like many other phone scams, scammers of this ilk can also reach you through your email, social media and even TV ads. By the way—if you’re getting rid of your phone, make sure you follow these cell phone recycling tips to help protect your information.
How the scam works: 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 say 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.
How to avoid it: Verify from a third party like charitynavigator.org, which rates organizations on factors like how much of each donation goes to the cause versus administrative costs, suggests Levin. Could your phone itself be spying on you? Here’s how to remove spyware from an iPhone.
How the scam works: 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.”
How to avoid it: Never give your Social Security number out over the phone. If you’re being contacted about jury duty, look out for an official letter, rather than trusting anybody who calls you and asks for sensitive information. Watch out for the most common tricks con artists use to win your trust.
- Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of Identity Theft Resource Center
- Federal Trade Commission: “Three Ways to Avoid Covid-19 Vaccine Scams Infographic”
- John Sileo, cybersecurity expert
- Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout and author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves
- FTCvideos: “How to Avoid Income Scams”
- Truecaller Insights: “2022 U.S. Spam & Scam Report”