Protecting Yourself From Phone Scams

Early last Friday morning, a phone call from an unknown number woke me up. I silenced my ringer and let it go to voicemail. A second later, the phone rang again with a call from the same number. I assumed I was the target of a particularly persistent telemarketer, and continued to ignore the call. But when the phone immediately rang for a third time, I worried there might be an emergency. I picked up.

The person on the other end of the line abruptly began speaking at an extremely rushed pace — too fast for me to gain my bearings or process exactly what was being said. In retrospect, it was probably a disorientation and scare tactic, just like the persistent phone calls. The man identified himself as a police officer, and informed me that there was a warrant out for my arrest from the federal government because I’d failed to pay a specific tax he identified by number. He attempted to get me to confirm identifying details about myself, at which point my brain finally caught up with the scam he was obviously attempting, and I hung up the phone.

I think of myself as a somewhat scam-savvy person — I’ve received plenty of fake phone calls that I identified as fraud and disconnected from within seconds. But the particular tactics from this caller had me stay on the line for almost a minute. Maybe it’s that I wasn’t fully awake for the first thirty seconds, but I was left shaken by even buying into his act at all.

[Netflix users: be aware of this scam making the rounds.]

I mentioned the call to a coworker, who said he’d been targeted with a similar scam — a supposed warrant out for his arrest from the IRS — twice that week.

A little research into the subject showed that fake IRS calls are actually quite common, so much so that the IRS itself has issued direct warnings to taxpayers. Americans are also being targeted with a host of other scam phone call scenarios — from fake kidnappings to fake FBI calls — by con artists attempting to steal money and other valuable information.

To help keep you on your toes, we’ve compiled some warning signs to look out for, and tips to employ in the case you’re targeted by this type of con. Below, read about how you can identify calls as scams.

Don’t Trust Caller ID

Scammers will often attempt to prove their legitimacy by using phone numbers that appear to connect to actual organizations. When I googled the number that called me last week, for example, it actually came up as a specific police precinct. Be aware that Caller ID can be faked, and don’t trust the person on the line just because the number appears viable.

Similarly, you might be best served by ignoring any call that comes from a number you don’t know. Most people use cell phones now, and if a number comes up that’s not in your contacts — and you’re not expecting a call — it might be best to let it go to voicemail.

The IRS Will Not Call You For Payment

With IRS scams specifically, know that it is extremely unlikely you’d be contacted by phone about a tax issue. The IRS has published specific guidelines on the ways these scam phone calls depart from typical protocol. The IRS will never threaten arrest on th phone for not paying a tax, ask for financial details over the phone, or call for any kind of immediate payment.

Don’t Give Out Financial Information

Most scammers are looking for immediate financial gain. As a general rule, you shouldn’t give out financial information over the phone — especially if you’re contacted unexpectedly by anyone claiming to be from a government agency, bank or other financial institution. Most legitimate institutions have online or mail-in payment options, and give customers more than a one-minute window to send in any missing payments. If you do actually believe the call is legitimate and it aligns with a payment you actually owe, you can confirm this by following AARP’s suggestion to hang up and call the institution on a number listed on other materials you’ve received from them, or on a number listed on a public website, rather than trusting the number that originally contacted you.

Scammers Can Have Your Personal Information

Just because someone on the phone has your email address, phone number, home address or other identifying details (like where you went to college) does not prove legitimacy. In the internet age, it’s extremely easy for anyone to find identifying details about you with a quick search. Part of the scam may be asking you to confirm these identifying details, which can only help them gain access to your protected information. Don’t trust callers just because they know things about you, and don’t confirm identifying details about yourself.

You Can Report Scammers

Scam phone calls can understandably be destabilizing, but take comfort in remembering that they are common. You can help curb their proliferation by using established channels to report calls you receive. You can report general scams to the Federal Trade Commission consumer hotline at 877-FTC-HELP, and you can report IRS scams to the US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at the dedicated IRS scam reporting webpage or at 800-366-4484.

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