Financial phone scams are on the rise. Here’s how to protect yourself.
“We’ve detected some fraudulent activity on your bank account,” the caller says. “Can you confirm your user name and password so we can get this fixed?”
The request for login credentials is suspicious, but the caller knows your name, your address, and even the last four digits of your debit card—and the phone number he’s calling from matches your bank’s. What should you do?
In an era of account-hacking bots, phone scams seem almost quaint by comparison. But they’re actually on the rise. Spam-blocking company TrueCaller reports that Americans receive 32 spam calls a month on average, up from 16 in 2015. While most of these calls are merely annoying (robocalls!), many of them are scams—deliberate deceptions perpetrated by fraudsters looking to steal your money or your identity. Recent major data breaches have compounded the problem, opening a trove of personal records to criminals who use the information (i.e., your Social Security number) to appear more believable. And the scams are working:
TrueCaller reports that nearly one in six Americans has fallen for a phone scam in the past year—an increase from one in ten in 2017—with an average loss of $244 per incident.
Here are four tips to make sure you’re not the next victim.
- Get on the National Do Not Call Registry. If you haven’t done this already, do it now. You can register landlines and cell numbers for free at donotcall.gov. Within a month, legitimate marketers should stop calling you, because that’s the law. After that, any “sales call” you get is likely a scam. Note that you will still get calls from companies you’ve recently done business with, charities, debt collectors, and pollsters.
- Never give out personal information to any unknown caller, even from a company you do business with. Seven in ten people don’t answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, a recent Consumer Reports survey found. In response, fraudsters are increasingly resorting to what’s known as enterprise spoofing, impersonating a real business by replicating its phone number. People have even reported first receiving a text message alerting them to a potential fraudulent transaction through their bank, followed by a call from someone who says he or she will lock their card to prevent further fraud after they provide a PIN or other information. Be wary. A bank or other legitimate business should be okay with your saying you’ll call right back. Do it, then call the number on the back of your credit or debit card—not a different number the caller gives, or one that pops up on your caller ID.
- Don’t respond to “government agencies” that phone you. It’s easy to panic when someone claiming to be an IRS agent leaves a message saying you need to call back within 24 hours or else face arrest. (Note that intimidating threats like that should be an immediate red flag.) What about a DMV representative who asks you to provide personal info in order to update your driver’s license? Or a Social Security Administration officer who says your “benefits are expiring”? (A call several colleagues of mine got recently.) All of these folks are scammers. Government agencies like these won’t call you without first notifying you about an issue by mail. Hang up.
- Be skeptical of callers claiming to be debt collectors. Even if you’re on the Do Not Call Registry, legit debt collectors can still ring you if you’re behind on payments for things like credit cards, car loans, or utility bills. Creditors commonly hire third parties to collect debts (again, legitimately). As you might expect, scammers often try to impersonate these collections agents. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a number of tips for figuring out if you’re talking to a true debt collector. Some signs of fraud: They withhold information about the nature of the debt, ask you to pay with a prepaid card or money order, press for personal info, or contact you outside the legal hours for debt collectors to call (between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.). If the debt is real, but you’re suspicious about the call, contact your original creditor. If you’re not sure whether a debt really exists, obtain your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com to see if the debt is listed on them.
My final bit of advice is to trust your instincts. If something about a call sounds fishy, just hang up and do some research.