Automated phone calls — also called “robocalls” — have been giving people headaches for years. According to a 2018 report by The New York Times, the issue is only getting worse. This is due to the fact that robocalls are cheap and easy to make — experts tell the NYT that robocallers can reach millions of consumers daily at relatively low cost.
A whopping 3.4 billion robocalls were recorded by YouMail, a robocall blocking service that collects and analyzes data. The top robocall phone scams in March 2018, per YouMail, included offers of 0% interest rates (122.9 million calls), claims of problems with a consumer’s credit card (82.5 million calls), and the promise of forgiven or lowered student loan debt (71 million calls).
And no, there’s not much you can personally do to avoid them, other than remain vigilant and skeptical whenever you’re answering an unexpected call.
IRS scams take advantage of people’s stress during tax season
Tax season is a stressful, chaotic, and confusing time for many. And fraudsters are all too happy to take advantage of that.
One of the most common types of phone scamming involves a caller claiming to be an Internal Revenue Service official and threatening those who answer over supposed debts.
According to Experian, these phony IRS agents will call and demand money from victims, threatening arrest or even deportation if they don’t comply. The IRS has issued repeated warnings about this common scam, even noting that the calls typically increase during the summer once the tax filing date has passed.
“Summertime tends to be a favorite period for scammers because many taxpayers have recently filed a return and may be waiting for a response from the IRS,” the agency noted in a May 2018 news release.
The ‘grandparent scam’ preys on grandparents’ love for their grandchildren
The so-called “grandparent scam” is a popular one targeting older adults, and it’s seen an increase lately.
In a fairly straightforward plot, the person on the other line will pretend to be the grandson or granddaughter of the older victim. They’ll then concoct a story ending with a request for immediate financial assistance. Often, tricked seniors will end up sending money via wire transfer to the scammers as a result.
These scams are part of a larger category of “family/friend impostor” fraud complaints. The FTC received 10,565 of this type of complaint in 2015 alone, according to AARP.
“Certain scammers, especially those targeting older individuals, will pose as family members seeking bail money in order to stir sympathy,” credit industry analyst Sean Messier of Credit Card Insider told Business Insider.
Even more disturbing, criminals who employ this type of scam are successful in part because they already have some of their potential victim’s information, including grandchildren’s names, phone numbers, and even addresses. The FTC notes that these scammers typically buy or steal this personal information in order to sound legitimate to potential victims.
Congratulations, you’ve won a free cruise! Or not.
While these vacation scams often come in via email, sometimes criminals still use the phone to reach overworked potential victims in desperate need of some relaxation time.
“Usually, this is a phone call from an automated dialer asking for you to provide your credit card number to accept a free cruise or vacation,” Marc Trepanier, Principal Fraud Consultant at global electronics payment company ACI Worldwide, told Business Insider.
While it’s certainly possible to win a free vacation, be wary — particularly if you don’t recall entering a contest in the first place.
Fraudsters will even take advantage of national disasters
Some criminals use the devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, tropical storms, and other disasters to steal money from unwitting do-gooders. These opportunists seek ways to profit from others’ misfortune by soliciting donations for charities — which end up being completely fake.
“Fraudsters are out there, taking advantage of vulnerable people overwhelmed by this storm,” warned Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer and director of the state’s Department of Financial Services, after Hurricane Michael in 2018, according to Consumer Reports. The same thing happened after Hurricane Florence only a few weeks earlier, prompting a warning from the IRS to well-meaning taxpayers.
Some criminals even prowl disaster areas post-storm pretending to represent the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“After every storm we have reports of fraudsters posing as FEMA inspectors,” Deanna Frazier, FEMA media relations manager, told Consumer Reports in 2018. “They visit people’s homes, ask for their Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, and sometimes even demand immediate payment for an inspection.”
FEMA never charges for housing inspections in order to receive federal aid for damages, and it never requests personal or financial information.
Unsolicited 'tech support' personnel who ring you up to inform you of computer problems are likely not legitimate
Microsoft reported in 2015 that an estimated 3.3 million people (including many seniors among that number) were targeted by tech-support con artists. The total cost to these victims? $1.5 billion.
“Typically, someone will contact you via phone to inform you that you have a virus on your computer, before providing instruction to ultimately acquire remote control of your computer and may actually place a virus on your computer before offering to sell a solution to fix it,” Trepanier explains. “Frequently coming from an offshore call center, which lends some credibility to the call, no one ever should offer to fix your computer remotely without you contacting them first.”
If you receive this kind of call, simply hang up immediately. Courtney Gregoire, senior attorney at the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, told AARP in 2016 that neither Microsoft nor any of their partners will place unsolicited calls to consumers about computer issues. Bolstering your computer’s security by downloading the latest operating system updates is also a good strategy.
And some scammers dupe victims by claiming to be from a utility company or their bank
Dealing with a compromised credit or debit card can be a huge headache, and many will want to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, some scammers prey upon that anxiety by fabricating fraud alerts in order to dupe you out of card details.
“[They’ll issue] requests sent via text message from an unfamiliar number (and certainly not the bank’s phone number), where the fraudster will suggest your bank has a fraud alert on a card, and you need to reply and provide your card number, PIN or other payment card details, or for additional banking information,” Trepanier told Business Insider.
Similarly, utility-related scam calls rose 109% in 2016 and have continued to rise in the years since. These scammers operate by tricking those who answer their calls into giving out personal and billing information in exchange for the promise of a federal program or the potential to lower the monthly cost of a utility bill. Once they have this information, the criminals can commit identity theft, opening accounts in their victim’s name.
“If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these calls and you’re not sure if it’s legitimate, hang up and call your service provider, in this case the number on your local utility company’s website or bill,” Jan Volzke, vice president of reputation data at spam protection service Hiya, told MarketWatch in 2017.
Newer scams convince people they owe a fine for neglecting to report for jury duty
Since scammers can easily spoof numbers nowadays to make it seem like a neighbor or local number is calling you, it makes sense that they can just as easily make it appear as if a law enforcement official or other legitimate agency is reaching out to you.
Experian listed jury duty scams, in which a fraudster calls and claims that you owe a fine for failing to appear for jury duty, as one of 2018’s worst scams.
Because these calls appear to be coming from genuine law enforcement phone numbers, people are easily tricked. The FBI in Georgia even issued a warning in April 2018, noting that they’d received “numerous complaints” about this sort of scam from people in and around the Savannah area. In this instance, victims were instructed to pay off the supposed “jury duty fine” with a Green Dot MoneyPak reloadable prepaid card.