What Are Phone Scams, and How Do You Avoid Them?

Scamming unsuspecting people is a time-honored tradition of low-lives and scum with nothing better to do with their time. These scams take many forms, whether they happen face to face, online, or over the phone.

Phone scams in particular are some of the most insidious identity theft attempts out there, because people are still primed to think of phone calls and texts as somehow more inherently “legitimate” than email.

A lot of the natural defenses we erect in online encounters or even when meeting someone in real life simply aren’t there when it comes to phone calls. People can sweet talk you without you having the same ability to read their body language and get a bad “vibe” like you would in person, and it’s not as impersonal as an email, where you have all the time in the world to react appropriately to what was sent.

What Do These People Want?

The most insidious part is many phone scams have one real goal: information gathering. This means that ANYTHING you give them can be used against you later, and sold by them to a third party.

The answers you reflexively give in response to a phone call can tell someone, or something a lot (as many of these scams are robo-calls). 

Importantly, the mere act of picking up the phone can tell them something: that your phone number is active. This means you won’t be taken off of whatever calling list they have, as they know someone will pick up if they call.

This is especially true for robo-calls, which are going to be pre-programmed to listen for specific phrases like “Hello”, “what” and “can you repeat that?”. Most of these are pretty easy to suss out, as they sound distinctly inhuman. But some are surprisingly good, which will be the ones recorded from a real human voice.

Even more insidious though, are the ones with an actual human on the other side who will be able to improvise and really work on you over the line.

What Can You Do About It?

Give them as little as possible. Preferably nothing.

When these people call you, you have a few options. The best one is to not answer the phone at all. Just let it ring until the call ends, completely ignoring it. Do not reject the call; ending the ringing prematurely lets them know there is someone there who can be pestered again later.

These callers can be relentless, and not answering them is no guarantee they won’t call later, but it’s your best chance.

In general, trust your caller ID. It will usually tell you when something is a “potential scam” these days, in which case they can all be safely ignored. If your phone doesn’t do this, you can download apps that help with it.

If you don’t have a smartphone, or otherwise don’t have caller ID, things get a bit trickier. In general, just not answering the phone when you’re not expecting a call is a good practice to get into.

If you are expecting a call, and don’t remember the number (if it’s a call back for a job interview or something), you’ll sometimes need to chance it. In this case, the general principle is still the same. Give them as little as possible.

I’ve gotten into the habit of not saying “Hello” when I pick up the line. I remain silent until someone on the other side speaks if I don’t know who’s calling. This may be mildly off-putting to the person on the other end, but it can be passed off as a simple connection issue, and if it’s a real person they’ll usually send off a “Hello” of their own to see what’s up.

If you’re lucky, they’ll also say who they’re representing. If they don’t, then you’ll have to go out on a limb again and confirm your presence to make sure who they are. Remain polite, of course, if you’re expecting a call, but remain vague.

Respond to a “Hello” with one of your own. Ask who you’re speaking to; don’t give your name.

From there, use your best judgment. If they’re someone you expect to hear calling, and are very specific about it, it’s probably safe to give them basic information. Avoid giving out more sensitive information like your bank account number, social security, and so on.

Double check that the number they’re calling from is legitimate. If they claim to be from your bank’s customer support department (and give the proper bank name, such as Wells Fargo), look it up online and see if the number matches.

Assuming everything lines up, you’re probably good to talk with them, but should still give no unsolicited info, and for sensitive information you should ask them to somehow confirm their identity first.

If you think they might be legitimate about you having an account problem, it might even be safer to hang up and call them back! If you call the customer support number on their website and ask them about an account issue you were just called about, you can be completely sure that you’re now on the line with a real customer support representative.

All of this might sound a bit paranoid, but it’s a good practice for keeping yourself safe, and is a mindset that will protect you from the vaguer calls. Let’s go over some of those.

What Types of Scams Are Out There?

Some of the most common scams are the vaguest and most obvious. They essentially rely on people making a huge mistake, and prey on those who are hard of hearing or even deaf; it’s difficult to tell if a caller is a robotic voice when you’re only getting the speech to text transcription of the lines they’re spouting. These are typically the robo-calls that spout off stuff like “I’m calling about your extended warranty” or “we have detected a problem with your Windows computer”. They cast a broad net, relying on the fact that it only takes one major slip up from one person to make a small fortune off their suffering.

Blackmail or extortion scams are another common one. You’ll get an ominous call or text, demanding that you pay them or something bad will happen to you. What this “something bad” that will happen is, is never really specified. Particularly crafty people will say something like “we will leak sensitive information” or imply that you’ve done something untoward and they have proof of it; things like, “You left your webcam on while browsing a porn site and I’ll send the footage to your family or friends”. No proof of this is ever produced, of course, but this will sometimes result in a twinge of fear in their victim if they have indeed been browsing such sites on their laptop or phone.

 These commonly also take the form of gift card scams, where they’ll order you to buy a gift card of a certain amount and send them the numbers on it. This sometimes overlaps with a different kind of scam where they might claim to be a friend of one of your family members, or even your credit card company who claims you have missed a payment, and do the same.

Let’s make this clear: nobody legitimate will ever ask for you to pay for something via gift card. The word “gift card” appearing in any conversation, outside of what you should get someone for their birthday or Christmas or something, is a pretty sure sign they’re up to no good.

Then, of course, there are the classic variants on the Nigerian Prince scam. While more common on the internet, via email, I’ve seen a few via phone as well. Truth be told, I added this section because as I was writing this, I received a text to that effect.

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