Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.
When you get a phone call from an unfamiliar number that looks like your own, you might be inclined to pick it up. After all, if it’s from your area code, it could be a new doctor’s office, a school parent, or someone else who has a legitimate reason to speak with you.
If you ignore the call and see they didn’t leave a voicemail, the first thing you probably do is Google it or run a reverse phone number search to find out who it was before you call back. But what happens if nothing comes up?
If you’re not able to find any search results for a seemingly local phone number, you might be the potential victim of scammers engaging in a robocall scheme called “neighbor spoofing.” Here’s what you need to know about this illegal scheme, how to tell if your unknown caller is legitimate, and what you can do to stop it.
1. What Is Neighbor Spoofing?
2. How Does It Work?
3. Why Are Neighbor Spoofing Calls A Threat?
4. Why Don’t Robocall Numbers Show Up In Searches?
5. What Can You Do About Neighbor Spoofing?
What Is Neighbor Spoofing?
Neighbor spoofing is an increasingly common tactic that involves using a caller ID that closely resembles the dialed numbers, often matching the first six digits of their victims’ numbers. It is also known as NPA-NXX spoofing.
Both landlines and mobile phone numbers are typically assigned by the location in which the line is established. The three-digit area code, or NPA, is associated with a large geographic region (most states only have one, two or three area codes), while the local exchange, NXX, denotes the approximate town or city.
By mimicking the NPA-NXX of their victims’ phone numbers, neighbor spoofers attempt to trick people into believing the caller lives right in their own hometown. Because people often move cities and keep their mobile phone numbers, some highly sophisticated neighbor spoofers may even make “local” calls from the NPA-NXX of the neighborhood a victim has moved to.
The Federal Trade Commission reported that the number of neighbor spoofing calls increased in 2017, and it’s likely even more will occur in the years to come as the technology for placing these calls becomes easier to access.
How Does It Work?
Neighbor spoofing is incredibly easy to do on a large scale. According to The Consumer Law Group, robocallers have had the ability to mask their numbers using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software for years. This is how callers from other countries, including high-profile illegal call center operations from India, can make their calls look like they are coming from within the U.S.
In a blog post on the topic, the FTC notes that scammers count on people’s instinct to pick up a call that looks local.
“The urge to answer can be tough to resist, since you might worry it’s a neighbor who needs help,” wrote author Emma Fletcher.
Why Are Neighbor Spoofing Calls A Threat?
According to The Verge, robocallers may attempt to contact their victims about any number of topics, including debt reduction (the most popular), vacations and timeshares, warranties/protection plans, and prescription medication. Scammers may also try to impersonate businesses, family, friends, and even government agencies – most notably, the IRS calling with bogus information about tax refunds or debt.
As with all attempts at fraud, the robocaller preys on people’s instincts to either improve their circumstances or comply with the law. No matter what the topic, the scammer wants to get their victims on the hook and convince them give up personal details like their bank and credit card information or Social Security number. From there, the caller can easily steal their victims’ identity and money, thus ruining their finances and often, their entire lives.
If you receive a call from an unknown number that appears to be from your local area, don’t pick it up – if a real person is urgently trying to reach you, they will leave you a voicemail.
Why Don’t Robocall Numbers Show Up In Searches?
When you see an incoming or missed call from an unknown number, you’ll want to run a reverse phone number search or do a white pages lookup to validate the caller’s identity before you call back. Phone number lookup tools like those offered by BeenVerified typically pull from public records. It’s easiest to find landline numbers that are linked to businesses or residences, but you can often find information for mobile numbers. If the phone number is real, these searches will return a wealth of information, such as their name, age, address, social media profiles, and other contact information.
However, because robocalls originate from a VoIP service and use a unique fake phone number, it’s virtually impossible to trace them back to a specific person or organization. When you search for a spoofed number on BeenVerified, you likely won’t return any results for this reason.
It’s worth noting that the Federal Communications Commission proposed an anti-robocalling rule in March 2017, which would allow phone companies to block calls coming from nonexistent phone numbers, like those used in neighbor spoofing.
What Can You Do About Neighbor Spoofing?
Even if you’re smart enough to ignore them, robocalls are still an annoying distraction that may come through at an alarming frequency. Because these scammers are operating outside the law, being on the Do Not Call list won’t stop their unsolicited calls. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to avoid them.
The simplest solution is blocking individual robocall numbers as they come up. You can also use scam blocking tools provided by phone companies, which typically involves reporting the number to your service provider so they can stop any incoming calls from it. However, the scammer can always use a different number and continue trying to reach you.
For a more permanent solution, the FTC recommends looking into call blocking services, such as mobile apps, cloud-based services that block any VoiP calls, or physical call-blocking devices for landlines. You can also report these unwanted, illegal calls directly to the FTC.
Remember, if an unknown “local” caller doesn’t leave you a voicemail, always confirm that it’s a legitimate caller on the other end. Use BeenVerified to run a reverse phone search, and if you don’t get any results, you’ll know that someone was trying to neighbor spoof you.