You’re listening to your voicemail messages, and an alarming recording begins:
Enforcement agencies to suspend your Social Security number on an immediate basis, as we have received suspicious trails of information in your name. The moment you receive this message, I need you to get back to me on my department division toll free number … verify the last four digits of your Social Security number when you call to better assist you, and if I don’t hear a call from you, we will have to issue an arrest warrant under your name.
Sound familiar? This exact phone message is one many people have received lately. It’s frightening, it’s confusing ― and it’s a scam.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received complaints from more than 35,000 people who reported this particular phone scam and lost a collective $10 million because of it. But it’s just one of many fraudulent phone calls you could receive. We spoke with the FTC about signs of a phone scam and what to do if you’re targeted.
Common Signs Of A Phone Scam
Phony calls from the Social Security Administration are what’s known as an “imposter scam,” according to Ian Barlow, the FTC’s “Do Not Call” program manager and staff attorney.
“The fraud that we get the most complaints about right now, by far, are imposter scams,” Barlow said. “That includes government imposters and fraudsters impersonating other businesses ― pretending to be Google or Microsoft ― but most especially fraudsters pretending to be the Social Security Administration or the IRS or other government agencies.”
Barlow said that every month, the FTC receives between 400,000 and 500,000 consumer complaints related to unwanted calls, with about 70% of those coming from robocalls or prerecorded messages. In addition to imposters, phone scams often include fake lotteries, prizes and sweepstakes, fraudulent debt reduction products and fraudulent medical and prescription calls.
To make it harder to spot an imposter, scammers will often employ a strategy called “spoofing,” which causes the caller ID on your phone to display a number belonging to a legitimate organization such as the government or your bank.
Barlow said the FTC has worked with a number of government agencies to put their phone numbers on a registry called the “Do Not Originate list.” This list is provided to telephone companies, instructing them to block any outgoing telephone call that displays one of these numbers as the caller ID (organizations reserve these numbers for incoming calls only).
Other times, scammers will spoof random, individual phone numbers and dial out a million calls, each with a unique caller ID number. That makes it nearly impossible to find the source or block the scammer from calling again.
Additionally, a current trend among phone scammers is prompting consumers to pay them using gift cards from iTunes, Google Play and Amazon, or other prepaid gift cards. In fact, the percentage of consumers who reported they paid scammers with a gift card rose 270% since 2015. “That is an immediate red flag,” Barlow said. “No legitimate business and no government agency is ever going to ask anyone to pay through those methods.”
Wire transfers are another common payment method among scammers. Barlow said any phone call requesting payment by wire transfer should give you immediate pause.
Watch Out For Legitimate But Abusive Phone Calls
Not all annoying phone calls from third parties are straight-up scams, according to Barlow, but they can still be abusive and violate the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule.
For example, you might receive a call pitching solar panels for your home or satellite dishes for Dish Network. It might be a legitimate product, but it’s being sold in an abusive, illegal way.
“Under the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, it’s unlawful to place any sales call that delivers a prerecorded message, unless you have the consumer’s permission,” Barlow said, noting that permission must be given in writing. That goes for sales calls to numbers on the Do Not Call Registry as well. And if you do give permission to be contacted, it must be in the manner originally disclosed.
“So if you receive a call trying to sell you something, and you didn’t ask for that call, that’s a red flag that the company is operating unlawfully. And you never want to provide your personal information or payment information to a company that you know is violating the law,” Barlow said.
What To Do If You Think You’re Being Scammed Over The Phone
Fraudulent phone calls are so ubiquitous that becoming a target is a matter of when, not if. So what should you do if you receive a phone call that raises red flags?
Hang up immediately. If you receive a robocall or sales call and you’re on the Do Not Call Registry (sign up, if you haven’t already), hang up immediately. “That’s an illegal call and you don’t want to do business with somebody who’s calling you illegally,” Barlow said. If you receive a phone call from a caller ID number you don’t recognize, hang up. Even better, don’t pick up.
And if you’re not sure whether it’s really the Social Security Administration or your bank or any other legitimate business on the other end of the line, again, hang up. You can go online to find the number for the business that called you and call them back. If the call was legitimate, they’ll connect you with the right person.
Report it. It might seem like a futile effort, but you should report all fraudulent and illegal phone calls. “The more data we get, the better,” Barlow said, since reporting these calls helps the FTC target its law enforcement and identify trends. To report a phone scam, file a complaint online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. If you receive a call from someone pretending to be from the IRS, you should also report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration online or by calling 1-800-366-4484. For Social Security imposter scams, file a complaint with the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General.
Sign up for a call blocking service. Registering your number with the Do Not Call Registry can help eliminate unwanted sales calls, but let’s face it: Scammers aren’t going to be deterred by the law. For an added layer of protection, consider signing up for a call labeling and blocking solution. Barlow said hundreds are available for cellphones; simply visit your app store and check out the reviews to find a good option. For landlines, contact your service provider to find out what’s available.