Caller ID is a handy tool for screening incoming calls. Do you want to get into a long conversation with your mother right this minute? Is your dentist’s office calling to confirm your upcoming appointment? Or is your phone ringing multiple times a day with robocalls from random 1-800 numbers?
Unfortunately, determining who’s calling (and whether you should answer) isn’t as easy as it once was. Caller ID spoofing allows fraudsters and telemarketers to fake the number that appears on your phone—and if they do so convincingly, you may think the caller is trustworthy and pick up.
What is caller ID spoofing?
Caller ID spoofing is when an individual or business sends false information to your caller ID to cause you to think the call is coming from someone you know or trust—or to make it harder to identify the real caller.
Neighbor spoofing is one specific type of caller ID spoofing where fraudsters appear to call from your area code,. The idea is you’ll be more likely to answer a call from a local number, which opens the door for scammers to engage you in conversation. Spoofing scams use a variety of methods to get you to give up personal information, including your credit card number, Social Security number, or logins and passwords.
Unfortunately, the caller ID spoofing problem—and the scams that come along with it—is getting worse. According to BeenVerified’s Spam Call Complaint Monitor, complaints about scam callers claiming to be from the Social Security Administration increased more than 23-fold in the first six months of 2019 compared to the first half of the previous year.
Brian Young, public policy manager at the National Consumers League, said his organization is also receiving a lot of consumer complaints about Social Security scams, which involve fraudsters telling call recipients that there’s a problem with their benefits and trying to get information like Social Security numbers and bank account data.
Odds are that if you receive a call like this and you’ve had no contact with the agency or organization before, it’s a scam, he said.
“Don’t assume that just because a caller ID displays a trusted number means that you can trust it,” he added. “You should always be on the lookout for something that seems odd—or odd requests.”
Is caller ID spoofing legal?
Caller ID spoofing is illegal if the caller’s intent is to defraud you, trick you into paying for a scam or steal your personal information. Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, anyone who spoofs caller ID for these purposes could face penalties up to $10,000 per violation.
“[Caller ID spoofing] becomes illegal when it’s used to cheat consumers out of their savings, and it becomes really concerning when it’s used to trick consumers into giving up sensitive information,” Young said.
However, there are some cases where altering numbers on caller ID is legal—and possibly even helpful. For example, your doctor may call you from their cell phone to discuss test results, but the number that appears on your screen (and the number you’ll call back) forwards to the office receptionist. Or an individual desk line at a business may show the company’s main call-back number.
If an organization (a telemarketing company, for example) uses caller ID spoofing, it must display a real call-back number through which consumers can request to unsubscribe from future calls.
Bottom line: as long as caller ID is spoofed for legitimate means by legitimate individuals, it’s legal. But these probably aren’t the calls you’re concerned about.
How to protect yourself from caller ID spoofing?
Protecting yourself from scammers who use caller ID spoofing requires a healthy amount of skepticism, a bit of common sense and the use of a few tools from organizations that are fighting back against this problem. Here are a few ways to try and handle caller ID spoofing scams.
If you get a call from an unknown number, or if a caller requests sensitive information, you should promptly question whether the call is legitimate. If something seems fishy, it probably is.
Hang up immediately if the call is a scam
If a caller asks you for personal or payment information to make a purchase or claims to represent a government or financial agency—or if it’s a robocall—hang up. Don’t press any buttons or engage in any further conversation.
Let calls from unknown numbers go to voicemail
If the call is important, the caller will leave a message, and you can decide how to proceed. This also gives you time to use a reverse phone search to try to figure out who the number really belongs to.
Don’t give out sensitive information over the phone
Banks, government agencies and other organizations that handle personally identifiable information generally do not call you asking for your data. Don’t share your PIN number, birthdate or other information with a caller claiming to represent one of these places.
Look up a legitimate call-back number
If you think the caller could be the real deal, hang up and search on the company’s official website for a call-back number. If you initiate contact, you can verify whether the initial call was legitimate.
Report spam calls
You can report spam numbers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FCC. This may not stop caller ID spoofing from happening to you, but it can help these agencies learn more about spammers so they can stop them.
Put your number on the National Do Not Call Registry (DNCR)
Add your info to the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. This won’t block spoofers, but it will limit legitimate telemarketing calls and possibly make it easier for you to spot scams.
Use a call blocking service
Some smartphones have built-in blocking capabilities. Otherwise, there are third-party apps you can download to your phone to try and block telemarketers and spam calls. You can also look into getting a virtual phone number.
Check with your phone service provider
Some telecommunications companies offer spam call identification and blocking resources for customers. T-Mobile, for example, automatically identifies potentially fraudulent calls and offers filtering options with all mobile plans. Verizon has a Call Filter app with both free and paid spam blocking options.
Spam calls, whether from telemarketers, robocallers or scammers, are annoying—especially if your phone is ringing off the hook. It can be even trickier to separate the legitimate callers from the fraudsters when they spoof your caller ID. But while you might not these calls entirely, you can minimize the potential damage by staying vigilant and trusting your gut.
“The main thing is just to be skeptical right away and to not give away information unless you’re expecting that call,” Young said.