How to Identify a Scammer on the Phone

Last Updated on July 25, 2023

person holding white samsung galaxys 4

Photo by Lindsey LaMont

I never answer calls from unknown numbers. Ever.

Even if I did, seeing “Telemarketer” or “Potential Spam” would make me quickly glance at the screen and then return to what I was doing.

I just don’t have time for nonsense.

But I can’t say I’ve never, ever answered the phone to a scammer before. In fact, there was a time when we had a landline. (Yes, I was alive during that era!)

I’ll never forget the fake Fraternal Order of Police caller.

Someone called, claiming to be from the National FOP. For a small donation, I’d get a bumper sticker showing my support. I could then put it in my back windshield, and maybe officers would be forgiving if I was caught speeding.

The thing was, I worked with law enforcement officers at the time. I mentioned it to one of them. He laughed and told me any officer who saw that would have one word for me:

Sucker.”

You see, this particular call, coming from California, was a scam. They pretend to be with the National Fraternal Order of Police, collect money, and keep most, if not all, of that money. At the time, they were giving out bumper stickers.

What Are Phone Scams?

Although it’s far less effective than the days before Caller ID, voice calls are still a popular way to scam consumers.

Scammers even have inventive ways to trick you into answering. They’ll often use a technique known as spoofing a number. They’ll choose an area code associated with the numbers they’re calling. You see, it’s a local number and answer.

Thanks to technology, scammers can contact numerous people in a short time, pinging numbers until someone picks up. If you answer, your phone is logged as legit, and you may find yourself subjected to more calls.

If possible, it’s best not to answer spam calls. But if you have to, knowing how to identify and respond to telemarketers is a great way to avoid scams.

Types of Fake Calls and Scams

Impersonation Scams

What is it? You answer the phone to someone claiming to be from the FBI or IRS. It might even be someone from a large retailer like Amazon or your bank. Whatever the source, the person claims there’s an issue that you need to resolve as soon as possible. You’ll just need to provide some details like account passwords or your Social Security number.

How to spot it: Similar to the phishing scams that are popular in text and email, a voice scam (“voice phishing”) is geared toward getting you to give up personally identifiable information (PII). If you get a call out of the blue prying for information, it’s likely the caller is scamming you. If the caller is demanding payment right away, chances are it’s also a scam.

How to avoid it: Whether it’s the government or a retailer like Amazon, it’s not common practice to contact customers and demand information. Even if your bank contacts you regarding an account issue, the caller will have your account details. Never give your usernames, passwords, account numbers, or credit card information to someone who contacts you. Instead, hang up and contact the entity the impersonator claims to represent.

person holding white Android smartphone in white shirt

Photo by NordWood Themes

Fake Prize Scams

What is it? A caller has some exciting news for you. You’ve won a prize. It might be a foreign lottery, or maybe it’s a vacation you forgot you entered to win. The caller can’t just hand over the prize, though. You’ll first need to provide some information. Surprise! The information is something that can be used to either steal your identity or take some money from you. 

How to spot it: If “sounds too good to be true” alerts are flashing, there’s a reason. First, if you’ve entered to win something, you’ll probably remember it. The caller should at least be able to tell you where you were when you entered. The telltale sign you’re being scammed, though, is that the caller IS REQUESTING MONEY OR PII.

How to avoid it: Keep track of any sweepstakes and contests you enter, as well as a note about how the winner will be notified. If someone contacts you asking for payment or PII, hang up. No supposed prize is worth risking identity or financial theft.

Extended Car Warranties

What is it? “Your car warranty has expired.” How many of us have heard that at the other end of a phone call? I don’t even answer my phone, and I get at least one voicemail with that message every month. With extended car warranty scams, the caller is quick to let you know that because your car is out of warranty, you could be at risk for super expensive repair bills.

How to spot it: Often, these calls will kick off with an automated message. You’re asked to press a certain number or stay on the line. If you follow those instructions, you’re asked to provide information that can be used to defraud you. The caller may have specific details about your car, so it seems believable, which is why these scams are so persistent.

How to avoid it: If you are concerned about your car warranty, look up the original paperwork or contact the dealership that sold you the car. You should be able to track down the company and extend your warranty legitimately. Never provide information or money to someone who calls you out of the blue, even if they have details about the property you own.

Charity Scams

What is it? Charity scams tug at your heartstrings. Or, if you’re like me with the FOP scam, appeal to your desire to do the right thing. With this scam, someone calls, claiming to be collecting money for a charity. Sometimes, the call kicks off with a thank you for a donation you promised. Either way, the goal is to get you to pay. Later, you find out the charity was bogus, and not only are you out the money, but the scammer may even have your credit card information.

How to spot it: Charity scammers will try every trick in the book to get you to pay without researching. The focus is on appealing to your kindhearted nature, so you may even be steered away from asking questions. In some cases, the caller may even ask you to wire the funds or pay using gift cards. 

How to avoid it: It’s easier than ever to research charities. Both Charity Navigator and Charity Watch let you input a charity name and learn about it. However, be aware that anyone can claim to be from a charity, and it can be tough to verify. Instead of donating to someone who contacts you, hang up and look up donation information online.

People Working in the Office

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Consent Scams

What is it? With this scam, you pick up the phone and are asked a question designed to get you to say “yes.” The questions can be fairly standard, like, “Can you hear me?” or “Is this the lady of the house?” When you say “yes,” you can be captured on recording as having given consent to charges to your credit card or phone number. You won’t even know what happened until you see a charge to your account.

How to spot it: The signature of these scams is the question designed to get you to say “yes.” If you answer the phone and this type of question comes up early on, chances are, it’s part of a consent scam. 

How to avoid it: If at all possible, avoid answering the phone when an unfamiliar number comes through. Even letting it go to voicemail can help prevent consent scams. NEVER HESITATE TO HANG UP if you feel the person on the other end of the line might be a scammer. If you still have a landline, check with your phone provider to see if you can block unauthorized charges.

Spotting Fake Phone Calls

So, you’ve answered the phone. Maybe you like talking on the phone. Or perhaps, like my husband, you can’t risk sending a call to voicemail.

Whatever the reason, the next step is to be able to quickly spot a spam call. At the very best, they’re a nuisance. At worst, they’ll risk your identity and financial health.

Here are some telltale signs a telemarketer (or scammer) is at the other end of the line. 

1. The Long Pause

Technology makes life easier…even for telemarketers.

At one time, these hard-working employees had to dial number after number until someone answered. Even then, the odds were slim that the person would stay on the line long enough to hear the full sales pitch.

Then came warm leads, bringing a list of numbers that were verified as authentic.

Then came rapid dialers that could run through a list of numbers quickly until someone answered.

These days, autodialers do all the heavy lifting for telemarketers. A computerized system dials until someone picks up. Then the call is routed to a call center worker, who can speak to the live person on the other end.

As great as that technology is, though, it lacks one fatal flaw:

The handoff is not immediate.

That’s why you often answer the phone for several seconds of silence until someone finally speaks.

It’s also why my voicemail is full of two-second silent messages. Sometimes voicemail kicks in, and the autodialer takes a little extra time to register it’s not a live person.

But that flaw works to your advantage. It gives you extra time to confirm you’re about to speak to a telemarketer.

You can hang up or wait to verify, but either way, at least you know what you’re getting.

2. Threats and Urgent Language

Unless a sheriff is banging on your door, nothing is so urgent that you have to take action immediately.

Scammers will have you believe otherwise.

Yes, legitimate telemarketers (and marketers in general) use urgent language, too. But one thing that alerts me that someone might be trying to trick me is this need to “take action now.”

Usually, it’s that a deal will go away if I don’t provide some sort of information right away– like a credit card number. 

Sometimes, an account is in serious jeopardy, and I need to provide a username, password, account number, or Social Security number NOW.

With a scam, urgency is a tool to keep us from doing some research. If we step away and conduct a quick Google search or log into our account, we’ll probably see it’s a scam.

3. Requests for Personal Information

It’s not unusual for someone to ask us to verify information before proceeding.

The difference with scam calls is that THEY CALL US, not the other way around.

Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most of the time, the bank is fine with us just giving the last four digits of our Social Security number. And no legitimate service will ask us for passwords.

There is an exception to that. My bank issues a four-digit passcode to make it easier to verify my account – this is different from my ATM PIN. I can never remember it.

And again, they’re asking for that information when I call them, not when they call me.

If there’s been fraud associated with your account, though, a legitimate service provider will be 100 PERCENT FINE if you ask to hang up and call back at the well-documented customer service number.

4. Call Originates from Local Number

Technology has made life easier for telemarketers (and tougher for us) in another way:

Spoofing.

Call centers can make it appear that they’re calling from any area code. I even will get calls from spammers who’ve managed to duplicate the first six digits of my phone number.

It can be compelling, even with that “Possible Spam” alert beneath it.

But we can no longer assume a local call is a legitimate one.

I only answer my phone when I’m expecting a local call. My dog is at the groomer, and I’m waiting to be alerted she’s ready for pickup. Or I have a dental appointment tomorrow, and I know that a confirmation call is coming.

(Why, oh why, can’t THEY send those via text when everyone else does?)

Otherwise, if it’s from a 615 area code, I assume it’s spam, and if it’s not, the caller will leave a voicemail.

person holding black android smartphone

Photo by Jonas Leupe

What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed

Sometimes, we pick up despite our best efforts to avoid phone calls. And sometimes, we even fall for a scam.

(I have a fake “FOP Supporter” bumper sticker in my past to prove it!)

When that happens, taking action quickly to minimize damages is important. Here are a few things to do once you realize you’ve been scammed.

1. Contact Your Bank

If you offered your credit or debit card number to pay the scammer, it’s important to reach out to the card issuer ASAP.

You can often dispute fraudulent charges and have them reversed. That means you might not have lost a dime.

If the scammer has your card information, it’s even more important to alert the issuer. That number could be used to make purchases. Zero-fraud liability should protect us in those instances. I smile at the thought of the person trying to use the card.

2. Report It to the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission investigates phone scams and other types of fraud.

You can report a scam to the FTC on its website. Although the federal agency doesn’t investigate individual claims, these alerts are collected and used as they’re researching and bringing cases against widespread fraudulent practices.

3. Monitor for Identity Theft

If you provide personal information to a caller, identity theft and fraud could be in your future.

You get one free credit report (from all three reporting agencies) every year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Pull the report and look for any unfamiliar entries. Keep an eye on it each year.

Or, better yet, freeze your credit. This will help keep anyone from filing for loans or making big purchases in your name.

Also, consider investing in identity theft protection. Not only do services like Aura keep an eye out for fraud, but they’ll also help cover the costs of recovery if your identity is stolen someday.

4. Join the Do Not Call Registry

The FTC operates a national registry that marketers are supposed to consult before reaching out to consumers.

While it probably won’t protect you from scammers, it will reduce the number of telemarketing calls you get.

Signup is free and only takes a few minutes. Best of all, once you’ve signed up, you’re on the registry for the life of that phone number.

Conclusion

Scammers only continue to get more inventing – and exhausting.

But if you can spot a scam call right away, you can stay on the safe side.

Whether it’s a scammer or not, it’s important to safeguard your personal and financial information. Before giving it out to someone on the other end of a phone call, ask yourself if you’re sure the request is legitimate.

Related: How to Pay Safely With Your Mobile Phone.