Hang up to avoid becoming a victim of a phone scam

I’m occasionally asked how to avoid becoming a victim of the robocall-driven phone scams that seem to be so common and prevalent nowadays.

The answer is fairly straightforward: Hang up.

If someone calls you with an offer, do not give them any information, just terminate the call. If someone tells you your computer is infected with a virus and you need to install a particular tool to clean it, disregard their instructions and immediately end the conversation. If someone asks you to wire money somewhere for any reason, refuse and tap your phone’s End button.

Why is it always safe and prudent to hang up, even if you’re not sure? Because hanging up won’t hurt your relationship with a legitimate business or a government agency. You should only provide sensitive information over the phone when you originate the call. Caller ID can be spoofed and businesses you have a relationship with can be impersonated.

So you need to be careful.

To avoid falling for scams, don’t give someone who calls you any sensitive information at all, and don’t let them direct you to do anything, whether that’s wire money someplace or install software on your computer.

And, if time allows, report scams so that they can be investigated by the authorities.

This morning, a group of scammers who are engaged in harvesting credit card numbers called me. I answered the phone and knew within seconds it was a scam, but decided to play along for as long as I could in order to (a) learn more about the scam and (b) waste the scammers’ time.

This particular group of scammers was running a con that goes like this:

  • Place a robocall to lots of people that advertises being able to get lower interest rates on credit cards (the brands Visa and MasterCard, which are networks, not issuing banks, are specifically mentioned)
  • Screen people who respond to the robocall by pressing “1” to see if they are an appropriate target for the scam by asking a bunch of fake qualifying questions that pretty much everyone would answer “yes” to;
  • Transfer the call to a fake “supervisor” who will then attempt to extract credit card numbers from the victim.

These scammers use some of the same techniques physics and magicians use. For instance, to establish their credibility and get you interested, they ask their would-be victims questions like: “You have three or more credit cards, correct? And you’re paying interest of more than ten percent on each card? And you’d like to pay less interest on those cards?”

(Most people would be able to answer yes to these questions.)

Among those Americans who have a credit card (29% don’t), the average is almost four cards. That means most Americans with a credit card have several of them, typically at least three. Hence the scammers’ question, “You have three or more credit cards, correct?”

The next question they asked was which banks the cards were issued from. I told the screener I had cards with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and CapitalOne, all of which are major card issuers with millions of customers. To all of the other screening questions, I offered responses like: “Great!”, “Excellent!,” “Yeah, sure,” or “That’s right.”

I was also told that I am a good customer and that I have a long history of making payments on time.

After I got through screening and was passed off to a more senior member of the scamming crew, I was asked for card numbers, beginning with my nonexistent Bank of America card. I used a credit card number generator to give the scammer a fake number, to see what he would do, and discovered he was trying to validate (and maybe authorize) the numbers in real time.

When the scammer protested that the sixteen digit number was invalid and not even a number beginning with a Bank of America prefix, I said, “Oops, sorry about that; try this,” and supplied a second fake number.

“Sorry, sir, that is not a valid Bank of America credit card number either,” the scammer said solemnly, a hint of contempt and resentment in his voice. “Darn,” I said. “That’s a shame.” He promptly hung up.

In this case, instead of hanging up on the scammers, I forced them to hang up on me, and I wasted several minutes of their time while learning more about their scam… a satisfying result.

If you only get robocalled once in a while, you may be able to deal effectively with the occasional scammer simply by hanging up the phone. Terminating a call is the simplest and easiest way to thwart phone scams.

If scam and spam calls are a frequent annoyance, however, you may want to go further so you can reclaim your time and sanity. There are many tools that can help shield you from unwanted calls of all kinds, scam calls included.

For example, there’s Jolly Roger Telephone Service, which can deploy bots to talk to telemarketers and their bots for you.

Or Nomorobo, which can protect VOIP lines and mobile lines. (Most VOIP providers, like Vonage and Ooma, include Nomorobo as part of their plans.)

Or Truecaller, which provides an app for mobiles that can be used to identify unknown numbers, record calls, and block numbers.

Scammers are wily people who have ways of evading defenses like number blocks, so don’t expect any of the aforementioned tools to totally eliminate unwanted calls. Your best defense of all against phone scammers is your own good judgment and critical thinking skills.

If more people had the equivalent of a Spidey-sense for detecting scams, scamming wouldn’t be as lucrative and profitable as it is. So pass on your scam fighting knowledge! It makes a difference.

Written by Andrew