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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Phone Scams

En español | We may have entered the digital age, but the telephone remains a key weapon in scammers' arsenals. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received about 1.4 million fraud complaints in the first three quarters of 2021 in which a contact method was identified, and in nearly 2 in 5 cases 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).

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It’s easy to understand why crooks love to dial you up. Based on the results of a March 2021 survey, call-security app maker Truecaller estimates that Americans lost $29.8 billion to phone scams in the previous 12 months, up from $19.7 billion a year earlier. Some 59 million Americans lost money to a phone scam during that period, according to the report, with the average cost jumping 43 percent, from $351 to $502.

Technology has made this illicit work easy. 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 techtravel, retail or financial companies, supposedly calling with valuable 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.) Whatever the issue, it can be resolved if you’ll just, say, provide your Social Security number or make an immediate payment.

Phone scammers 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're thinking a lot about COVID-19. Nearly 3 in 5 respondents to the Truecaller survey reported receiving a pandemic-related scam call or text message in the previous 12 months as crooks sought to exploit people's fears for their health and financial well-being.

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 during the holidays and 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 African and 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.

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 December 7, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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