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How to Identify and Avoid Common Phone Scams Skip to content

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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Phone Scams

En español | We may have entered the digital age, but the telephone remains scammers’ weapon of choice. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 940,000 fraud complaints in 2018 in which a contact method was identified, and 69 percent of the time a call was the swindler’s way in. Once they get you on the line, phone scammers use false promises, aggressive sales pitches and phony threats to pry loose information they can use to steal your money or identity (or both).

It’s easy to understand why crooks love to dial you up. The FTC reports that the median loss from a phone scam in 2018 was $840, more than double the median loss across all fraud types. And new technology is making this illicit work easier. With auto dialers, shady operators can blast out robocalls by the millions for just a few dollars a day. Readily available spoofing tools can trick your caller ID into displaying a genuine government or corporate number, or one that appears to be local, to increase the chances that you’ll answer.

Whether live or automated, scam callers often pose as representatives of government agencies or familiar tech, travel, retail or financial companies, supposedly calling with important information. It might be good news. (You’re eligible for a big cash prize! You’ve been preselected for this great vacation deal!) It might be bad. (You owe back taxes. There’s a problem with your credit card account. Your computer is infected with that virus you’ve been hearing about.) Whatever the issue, it can be resolved if you’ll just, say, provide your Social Security number or make an immediate payment.

Phone fraudsters might also impersonate charity fundraisers or even your grandchildren, playing on your generosity or family bonds to get you to fork over money. And, like the rest of us, they are rapidly going mobile. According to a data analysis by telecommunications security firm First Orion, more than 44 percent of mobile calls will be fraudulent in 2019, compared with just 3.7 percent in 2017. First Orion calls it a brewing “epidemic” of scam calls, but you can take steps to inoculate yourself.

Warning Signs

  • Unsolicited calls from people claiming to work for a government agency, public utility or major tech firm, like Microsoft or Apple. These companies and institutions will rarely call you unless they have first communicated by other means or you have contacted them.
  • Unsolicited calls from charity fundraisers, especially after disasters.
  • Calls pitching products or services with terms that sound too good to be true. Common scam offers include free product trials, cash prizes, cheap travel packages, medical devices, preapproved loans, debt reduction, and low-risk, high-return investments.
  • An automated sales call from a company you have not authorized to contact you. That’s an illegal robocall and almost certainly a scam. (Automated calls are permitted for some informational or non-commercial purposes — for example, from political campaigns or nonprofit groups like AARP.) 

Do's

  • Do put your phone number on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. It won’t stop spam calls, but it will make them easier to spot because most legitimate telemarketers won’t call you if you’re on the registry.
  • Do consider using a call-blocking mobile app or device to screen your calls and weed out spam and scams. You can also ask your phone-service provider if it offers any blocking tools.
  • Do hang up on illegal robocalls.
  • Do slow down and ask questions of telemarketers. Legitimate businesses and charities will answer questions and give you time to consider a purchase or donation. Scam callers will pressure you to commit right away.
  • Do independently research travel deals, charities or business and investment opportunities you hear about by phone.

Don'ts

  • Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers.
  • Don’t return one-ring calls from unknown numbers. These may be scams to get you to call hotlines in Caribbean countries that have U.S.-style three-digit area codes, and you could incur hefty connection and per-minute fees.
  • Don’t follow instructions on a prerecorded message, such as “Press 1” to speak to a live operator (it will probably lead to a phishing expedition) or press any key to get taken off a call list (it will probably lead to more robocalls).
  • Don’t give personal or financial data, such as your Social Security number or credit card account number, to callers you don’t know. If they say they have the information and just need you to confirm it, that’s a trick.
  • Don’t pay registration or shipping charges to get a supposed free product or prize. Such fees are ploys to get your payment information.
  • Don’t make payments by gift card, prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Fraudsters favor these methods because they are hard to trace.

AARP Fraud Watch Network

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

More Resources

  • If you encounter a suspected phone scam or an abusive telemarketer, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, online or at 877-382-4357, and notify your state consumer protection office.
  • Report caller-ID spoofing to the Federal Communications Commission, online or at 888-225-5322. The FCC also provides consumer guides to numerous phone scams and improper practices.
  • Visit the Do Not Call Registry website or call 888-382-1222 to register your number or report illegal robocalls.

Updated: May 8, 2019

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