Phone scams and how to beat them

Crime, Money, News

Did you get any suspicious calls last year claiming to collect a government debt? If so, you’re not alone.

As reported by Consumer Reports, 2016 was the first year that debt collectors were allowed to contact consumers who owe the government money. That includes Department of Education student loans, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage loans, and the IRS.

Not surprisingly, the government’s decision to open the door to these kinds of calls also opened the floodgates to scammers. And even if you’re skeptical by nature, these calls can be tough to deal with—because now, they just might be legit.

Then again, some of the scams are pretty obvious. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one ploy was a call claiming to be from the IRS asking a delinquent taxpayer to pay their bill with an iTunes card.

While that’s a request that would raise most people’s eyebrows, the fact that the IRS is allowed to legitimately call you at all can cause quite a lot of consternation. You might be hesitant to hang up, fearing some kind of negative consequence.

Tactics to stay safe

Fraud comes in many forms, and both landlines and wireless phones are susceptible. So what to do? If you get an IRS call, tell them you’ll call back. You can also thank them for the call and tell them you’ll deal with it through the mail or online.

Whatever you do, legitimate caller or not, don’t give out any personal information over the phone. Not your address, not your social security number, and especially not any debit or credit card information. The IRS will never, under any circumstances, ask for payment over the phone. So if you get a call asking for a debit or credit card number, it’s definitely a scam and should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Here are some other top phone scams to be wary of that might come your way:

  • Elder scams. According to the National Council on Aging, scams against the elderly constitute “the crime of the 21st century,” with so many variations that they would be impossible to list. Short of taking away an elder’s phone privileges, about all you can do is make sure they know that they should never, under any circumstances, give out financial or personal information over the phone.
  • Google. Telephone security company Pindrop Labs reports that during the first half of 2016, nearly 20 percent of phone scams came from callers claiming to be Google, and purporting to “help” businesses update their information—all while phishing for information. Google won’t call you. If someone claiming to be from Google does, hang up.
  • Political Scams. Look for these to heat up again as we get closer to the 2018 midterm elections. These can be extremely sophisticated and difficult to tell from the real thing. Sometimes, actors who sound like candidates are used to make you believe you’re getting solicited from the candidate personally, which can be tough to resist if you’re a supporter. Resist the temptation. If you want to donate to a candidate, tell them you’ll go online and do it through their website.
  • One Ring Scams. You get a one-ring call on your wireless phone from a number—and probably an area code—you don’t recognize. Your curiosity gets the better of you and you call back. You get a recorded message telling you to hold—and unknowingly rack up an international premium line fee of $20 and up to $20 a minute. One ring? Don’t call back!
  • Free stuff scams. Everyone wants to get lucky and be a winner. That’s why these scams, one of the oldest tricks around, are still so popular. Unless you’ve entered a legitimate contest of some type, if someone calls telling you you’ve won something, just hang up.

If you’ve been the victim of one of these scams, you should definitely report it to the FTC and/or the police. And if you can identify the perpetrator, you might also want to contact a lawyer to help you recover damages.

How to beat a bad call

While phone scams come in a vast variety of flavors, and are almost diabolically admirable in their resourcefulness and creativity, there’s one sure way to beat every single one.

According to the FTC, your top strategy should be to just hang up—especially on robocalls. Once you’ve hung up, it’s a good idea to block the caller. And the FTC has made it easy to report most types of suspected frauds.

If you don’t want to get telemarketing calls at all, you can register your number with the National Do Not Call Registry. Once you do so, you should stop receiving calls from legit telemarketers within 31 days—which means that anyone calling you is probably non-legit.

This won’t stop legitimate bill collectors, now including those calling on behalf of the IRS. And it certainly won’t stop scammers. But regardless of who’s calling, your best bet is to firmly but politely say you only do business online or via the mail, don’t give out any personal information no matter how small, and then say goodbye and hang up.