Why You Can’t Trust Phone Calls You Think You Should Trust

Businessman covering the phone
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“Call from 877-382-4357? Hang up,” warns the Federal Trade Commission. Seems that phone number — better known as 877-FTC-HELP, the agency’s go-to hotline to report scams — is another example in the never-ending plague of spoofing, the practice of deliberately displaying a false number (and sometimes name) on the recipients caller ID.

The goal of scammers using this tried-and-true telephone trickery is to present a phone number that can be trusted, so recipients answer the phone. “Once you start talking,” explains Jonathan Sasse of PrivacyStar, whose app identifies and blocks scam calls, “their autodialing software detects a live number and person on the other end and the scam begins.”

How spoofing works: Using cheap and readily available services such as Spoofcard and/or popular Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone systems, fraudsters select whatever number they want displayed, for whatever ruse they choose. They most often pretend to be calling from a government agency, utility company, bank or tech company such as Microsoft. They also claim to be police, sweepstakes officials, even AARP. Fast-growing schemes include spoofing local numbers (typically using the recipient’s same area code and prefix) so calls appear to be from neighbors, your pharmacy or doctor’s office — or even your own phone number.

Some spoofed calls are made individually, but the majority are sent en masse — sometimes by the millions — with the help of autodialers. Some are live, but most are robocalls — and with as little as your “Hello,” you’re typically transferred to a boiler room where a smooth-talking fraudster takes over.

Although spoofing scams have been around for nearly a decade — originally done mostly to glean consumers’ bank account details — they’re now the foundation of most leading phone scams. (Spoofing itself is not illegal, but under federal law, it is illegal to transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value.”)

Whatever the ruse, it’s the same rip-off: First, display a phone number that appears trustworthy so the call is answered. Then, angle for your money and/or phish for personal information that could be used for identity theft — usually by instilling fear, sometimes luring with greed.

To make calls seems authentic, and to better incentivize you to answer, spoofed numbers often display the name of the supposed caller, say the Internal Revenue Service or Bank of America. But some have more generic displays such as Bank or County Courthouse, or maybe a city such as Washington, D.C. Others simply show a phone number.

Consider the most common phone schemes, each using spoofing with a fraud-focused cornerstone: False threats of immediate arrest from self-described IRS agents or police because of overdue taxes or missed jury duty. Bogus bank calls alleging “a problem with your account” and Medicare scams claiming a need to “verify your identity” or you’ll lose benefits. The myth that your computer has a crippling virus when those liars from a faraway country have no idea if you even own one. The list goes on — and so will spoofing.

Depending on your phone type and operating system, apps such as Hiya, Truecaller, NoMoRobo or PrivacyStar can block many spoofing calls. But when others get through, here’s what to do in addition to not answering or hanging up:


  • If you answer, don’t speak. A “live” person on the other end will start a conversation, but several seconds of dead silence indicates it’s a robocall using voice-activated technology to transfer you, or at least play a message.
  • If you speak, say nothing of value. That includes providing or even confirming your name, account numbers, anything that helps phoning fraudsters identify you. If the caller claims to be with a company you do business with, hang up and call the customer service number listed on your statements, in the phone book or on the company’s website. If the caller claims to be with a government agency, hang up. The IRS, Medicare, Social Security and other government agencies do not make unsolicited phone calls.
  • If you have a voicemail account with your phone service, set a password for it. Some voicemail services are preset to allow access if you call in from your own phone number. If you dont have a password, scammers could spoof your home number and gain access to your voicemail.
  • If it’s not personal, assume it’s a scam. Unlike automated but personalized reminder calls from doctor’s offices or a pharmacy, scam robocall campaigns do not mention your name or other personal identifiers. That’s because thousands or millions of others get the identical message.

For information about other scams, sign up for the
Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. Keep tabs on scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

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