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12 Phone Call Scams—And How to Avoid Them

Those scammers are sneakier than you'd think, but you need to protect your money and information.

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“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. For more phone scams, find out how to tell if the “iPhone virus warning” is a scam.

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COVID-19 vaccine scams

Sadly, we knew this was coming. With coronavirus vaccines starting to become available, scams have inevitably followed, including phone scams. People are desperate for the vaccine—and to know when they’re eligible because the rollout has been confusing—so scammers have tried to weasel money out of them. Scammers will call pretending to be a government agency or healthcare provider offering access to the vaccine—but there’ll be a catch. The caller may ask for money in exchange for getting you a vaccine appointment or getting you early access to the vaccine. Even if you may not put such shadiness past governments, no legitimate organization is taking payment in exchange for vaccine access. You should also know that if anyone calls with “information” about the vaccine and asks for personal information like your Social Security number, credit card number, or bank account info, they’re a scammer. Find out these other coronavirus scams that could steal your money.

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IRS impersonators

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. Hang up and call a phone number you can verify online, says Sileo. This scenario is similar to this call that almost always means you’re about to be scammed.

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Bank calls

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.” Find out more about how to stop robocalls and spam calls for good.

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One ring

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. Let any unknown number go straight to voicemail, he says. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message. These are the area codes you should never answer calls from.

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Virtual kidnapping

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. “Anyone who wants to stay on the phone with you through the process is not a kidnapper—they’re a scammer.” If you have an iPhone, find out the iPhone privacy settings you should check right now.

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Tech support

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. These are the 20 tricks cyber scammers use to hack your stuff.

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Grandparent scam

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.

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Lucky winner

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. These are 10 online scams you should be aware of.

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Income scams

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. Like the vaccine phone scams, this scam has seen a boost during COVID and the resulting period of economic hardship. In particular, scams that say you can make lots of money “working from home” have been pretty big, which of course makes sense. 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.

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Donation collections

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. Could your phone itself be spying on you? Here’s how to remove spyware from an iPhone.

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Jury eligibility

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.” Watch out for the 12 common tricks con artists use to win your trust.

Sources:

  • 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 global identity protection and data risk services firm CyberScout
  • FTCvideos: “How to Avoid Income Scams”

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.

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