Trends in Trust

Telephone turmoil: How scammers are using your phone to exploit you

Wednesday, August 5, 2020
phone scams

In a world where we conduct much of our lives on our phone, scams involving phones are becoming much more common. There are many seemingly simple ways in which scammers can steal your money or steal your info by hacking into your smartphone, or convincing you to give information over a phone call or through a text.

In our series, Trust in the Age of Scamming, Trustpilot is exploring how consumers are regularly exposed to scams, how they can detect scams, and how to know what brands to trust. This week we’re looking at some of the most egregious phone scams out there so you aren’t unsuspectingly taken advantage of by sketchy businesses or individuals.

Smartphone scamming is rampant

With so much of our personal data housed in smartphones, it’s no wonder that our phones now put us at greater risk of being scammed out of our money or having personal data stolen.

Phishing scams, no longer only used in email, frequently happen in text message schemes where the perpetrator pretends to be a bank, utility company, governmental agency, or another ‘trustworthy” organization looking to trick consumers into sharing their personal information. These can often be designed to look like automated messages, claiming that there is suspicious activity on your account or that there is an issue with payment. Sometimes, responding to these messages may allow the sender to install harmful malware on your phone, even if you don’t share sensitive information. If you receive a suspicious text message, verify the number with the organization claiming to text you, or delete the message all together and call the organization directly to discuss the issue.

There have also been reports of third-party app developers tricking consumers into downloading their app by making it appear that they are affiliated with a well-known brand or app, while they are actually operating independently. When users download these apps, they often are unknowingly agreeing to a subscription fee (although major smartphone providers like Apple and Google both have password checks in place to help users avoid accidental subscriptions), or the apps contain malware designed to mine your phone for sensitive info, send text messages using your number, or hack your photos or location information. Before downloading any app to your phone, be sure to check the developer and confirm that it is affiliated with the brand it claims to represent.

In order to keep your smartphone safe, make sure you have a password or passcode set on your device and never download suspicious apps or software. If you’re unsure about an app or app developer, check an open review platform such as Trustpilot to see what experiences other consumers have had with the app.

telephone turmoil

Robocalls and the damage a recording can do

Despite the sophistication of smartphones, robocalls are still a major scam that persists in 2020. A robocall is when you answer your phone and it’s a recorded message, instead of a live person on the other end — and in some places they’re not exactly legal. These scammers can unfortunately be very creative and there’s a wide range of unique scams out there designed to take your money. The scams themselves can vary because there are a few different tactics they use to seem more legitimate.

One of the biggest tactics used is “call spoofing” — where the caller makes it appear that they are calling from a different number than their own. This often means having the first three digits mimic your area code, so you assume it is a local business you’ve recently interacted with or even someone that you may know.

Another tactic is attempting to convince you that the recording is a live person to get you to respond with a “yes”. Asking questions like “are you there?” or “can you hear me” naturally elicit a “yes” from you. But what they’re actually doing is recording your voice when you say “yes” and then using it to authorize charges in your name with credit card and utility companies.

Another common phone scam is the “one ring call scam” where callers will dial and let it hang up after only one ring, often late at night. They call from a foreign area code and they usually call multiple times in one night. Their goal is to annoy you or frighten you into calling back. What their victims don’t know is that all they’re looking to do is pocket the expensive charges and fees from the foreign phone calls.

So how can consumers avoid becoming victims to robocalls and deceitful dialers? You can always go the old fashioned route and let suspicious or unknown numbers go to voicemail, although for many who rely on their personal phones for work aren’t able to let calls from unknown numbers go unanswered. In this case, there are apps such as NoMoRobo and RoboKiller that will filter spam calls for a monthly fee. Some wireless service providers also offer a spam filtering service free or for an additional fee per phone number.

If you suspect you may have fallen victim to a robocall scam, alert your local consumer protection agency and your wireless service provider. Depending on your location, you may have certain rights that entitle you to compensation.

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Imposter scams for all ages

Not all phone scams are robots, however. Sometimes you have a live human on the other end, attempting to impersonate someone in order to get personal information from you. In one case, the caller impersonated someone from the Social Security Administration to scam an elderly woman out of her retirement savings.

The scammer managed to trick her caller ID so that it would show the agency’s actual phone number and the man was prepared in advance and already had her social security information. These two factors added enough sense of legitimacy to convince her he was with the agency. He told her there was an issue with her account and that if she didn’t pay to fix it, her benefits would be cut off.

Shortly after agreeing to send the money, an accomplice called claiming to be from the FBI saying she had been scammed and that she would need to pay more money for them to go after him. She ended up being fooled both times and losing $80,000 in savings. Scams like these prey on the elderly and take advantage of the quickly changing modern world to confuse them.

But the elderly aren’t the only targets of these imposter scams. With iPhones being so popular around the world, another common scam is imposters posing as Apple Support Agents. They begin by saying that the recipient’s iCloud account has been breached and ask for them to verify their iCloud login info.

These types of scams typically use software that helps their number on your caller ID mimic a real support line. After this they pressure the recipient for more information (to access your account and take money that way) or for payments directly. Apple has warned that they will never ask you to share your login or personal information and that if you get an unsolicited call from someone claiming to work with Apple, call up and get in contact with Apple’s support team through their website.

Generally speaking, you should never give personal or financial information to someone over the phone unless you can easily verify that this person is a legitimate representative of the business they claim to work for. As a rule of thumb, government officials will almost never ask for personal or financial information over the phone and it is best to be weary of anyone claiming to be a government official pressuring you to give this information.

Similarly, anyone from a financial institution or service that demands you pay money to release or track down funds should be met with a healthy amount of skepticism. If you believe that the call is legitimate, get in touch with your bank or financial institution through a formal channel (corporate phone number, website, or retail location) before sending money.

Always err on the side of caution and confirm the identity of an unknown caller

Although there are always going to be new ones popping up, the best thing for you to do is to try and stay up to date on different scams going on and to always be cautious, particularly when it comes to your phone, or anywhere that personal or financial information is stored.

If you receive a call from an organization or company that you think may be legitimate, such as a charity or your bank, these are some questions you can ask to verify their identity:

  • Who is calling and why? It may sound simple, but asking someone to verify their name, company affiliation, and location is enough to scare off some imposters. It also allows you information to cross reference with a reliable source.
  • Can the information they are looking for can be shared online through a secure corporate website? If not, have the caller explain in detail why it is critical that information be shared over the phone. If it sounds suspicious, hang up.
  • Can they call you back later or give you a call back number? If the caller is pushy or aggressive, this is a warning sign. A legitimate telemarketer or company representative should be willing to call back at a time that is convenient for you and allow you time to investigate their reason for calling.
  • What verifying information can they provide? For example, if you get a call from a utility company ask them to confirm your most recent statement amount or payment date. With a bank, you can ask them to confirm the last place you used your debit or credit card. Most companies where you are an existing customer should be able to provide you with information that would only be available to a company representative.

If someone is pressuring you to act quickly when it comes to a payment or sharing your information, try to end the call to get in touch with that agency or company directly using their publicly available phone number.

Most governments also have agencies there to help report and stop these phone scams, so if you Google “Report financial scams” you should find the correct one for your location.

If you’re questioning the legitimacy of a company represented by a caller, you can check their Trustpilot profile page to see what experiences other consumers have had with this company. Similarly, if you’ve had a phone call with a legitimate company, you can share your experience with other Trustpilot users by leaving a review.

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