Personal Finance

You think it's your friend calling, but it's actually this growing phone scam

Key Points
  • With our phone lines saturated with robocalls, many people only pick up if they recognize the number.
  • But this scam complicates even that strategy.
Lluis Gene | AFP | Getty Images

Rebecca Schulte, 24, was at her apartment in West Hollywood, California, when she received a call from a familiar area code. She picked up.

"I'm on the side of the road, there's been a really bad car accident," a man said. He told her he'd found her number in the injured man's phone.

Rebecca knew her father had been driving, and in a panic she asked if it was him: "Is it Brian?"

"Is your name Brian?" she could hear the man ask.

If this problem isn't solved, we're getting close to the death of the phone call.
Jonathan Nelson
director of product management at Hiya

He told her it was. "He's bleeding a lot," he added.

Then, the man told her that if she didn't send him money immediately he would let her father die.

"I stopped mid-sob," she said.

She suspected it was a scam and hung up.

Still, many people do end up sharing financial information over the phone.

More than $9 billion was lost from phone scams in 2017, up from $7.4 billion in 2015, according to a company that tries to combat such issues, Truecaller.

More than 7 million complaints were filed with the National Do Not Call Registry last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"Phone scams are one of the big problems right now," said Adam Doupe, associate director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics at Arizona State University. "They're much more effective than email scams."

The growth of the phone scam is, in part, thanks to a new tactic these criminals are using that makes people more likely to answer their calls, and then trust them once they do.

Scammers are increasingly spoofing phone numbers to make them look familiar to you. They might use your area code or the first six digits of a friend's phone number.

Half of all phone scams today use this tactic of digit spoofing, according to a recent analysis by Hiya, a phone spam protection company.

Robocalls are getting out of hand and here's how to stop them

Now most people's primary line of defense against these dangerous calls — to simply not pick up the phone if they don't recognize the number — is being challenged.

"One of the key flaws in the current telephone system is this fact that spammers can spoof the caller ID," Doupe said.

He said older people are especially at risk. "The phone is their main form of communication," he said. "When they get a scam call, they're more likely to take it at face value."

Once they get you on the line, these spammers often use sensational tactics.

They will make people believe there is a warrant out for their arrest, tell them they owe money to the IRS or that a family member is in danger.

"To them, it's just a business," said Jonathan Nelson, director of product management at Hiya.

And that sense of urgency can make people vulnerable and more likely to hand over financial information, he said.

Unable to decipher if it's friend or foe on the other line, many people have dispensed with answering the phone all together, Nelson said.

"If this problem isn't solved, we're getting close to the death of the phone call," he said.

What you can do

"If a consumer doesn't feel they're expecting any phone calls, just don't answer," Nelson said. The caller can always leave a voicemail.

If a number looks familiar, but something seems off, tell the person you'll call them back. If the call was legitimate, you should be able to reach them in an outgoing call.

A number of apps — Hiya, Truecaller, YouMail and Nomorobo — allow you to block and filter spam calls.

You can also add your name to the National Do Not Call Registry.

"Often times it's someone trying to trick you into giving them valuable information and money," said Amy Nofziger, a fraud expert at AARP. "Don't give any personal information over the phone."

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