Sometimes a call from an unknown number is simply a mistake. More often, these days, it’s a deliberate attempt to steal your money, especially if the call originates from area codes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deems are unsafe.
Wangiri, which is Japanese for “one ring and cut,” is one of the most common phone scams originating from unsafe area codes. Victims who return a Wangiri call are charged as much as $20 for placing the call and $10 per minute while they remain on the line. Some victims have lost as much as $50 a minute to Wangiri, or the so-called one-ring scam.
Phone fraud is a global industry that costs victims $37 billion a year, but there’s one simple thing you can do to lower your chances of being a victim: Never answer calls from these area codes.
What is an unsafe phone number?
Scams like Wangiri make money from inflated international telephone connection rates and per-minute charges. International numbers are usually easy to identify on caller ID; there is a country code prefix just before the area code and telephone number. Most consumers hesitate before accepting international calls unless they know someone living overseas, so scammers have found a way to disguise international numbers on caller ID.
The country code for the United States is +1, but it turns out there are many other countries that also use a +1 country code. Caller ID displays calls from these countries as typical domestic calls, so there is no international country code to warn consumers.
One-ring scams from these unsafe area codes cost consumers around the world about $2 billion a year. The FCC first warned about the growing threat of one-ring scams in 2014, but a new wave of calls prompted a second warning in May 2019.
Robocall technology may be behind the recent spike in fraudulent calls. New robocall platforms can make 5,000 simultaneous calls a second for about $1. One-ring scammers could call every single person in San Francisco for less than $200, and if just 10 individuals return the call, they make a profit.
The FCC is cracking down on robocall scammers, and the government and telecom providers are working together to find a technology solution, such as Stir/Shaken, to eliminate the problem. But don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
Certain conditions within the U.S. telecom industry make it a cheap and attractive place for phone scammers to operate. Unlike most of the rest of the world, which uses a caller-pays system, the U.S. is on a receiver-pays protocol. In other words, robocall fees are passed on to the receiving party.
Robocalls can be done over an IP service—think a database, Skype, etc.—just by entering a host number. “Because it is conducted on a voice over internet protocol (VoIP), fraudsters can have the number appear to be whatever they desire,” said Liz Brock, owner of Root Investigations in New York. “Robocallers [can easily] ‘spoof’ a credible business.”
The sprawling VoIP phone system also contributes to the problem by lowering calling costs. As a result, the U.S. is on target to receive 60 billion robocalls this year, a number that dwarfs any other country.
What are common scam area codes?
The Wangiri scam is also called the “473 scam” because the 473 area code, which originates from the island of Grenada, was one of the first ones used to disguise international calls. Although 473 is still used by scammers, the list of area codes has steadily grown.
The FCC advises consumers to never answer calls from these area codes (unless, of course, you know someone from there):
Brock says years of data breaches have exposed American consumers to the tsunami of scam robocalls. She recommends using a call-blocking app to warn you of potential scam calls.
“Hang up immediately on any calls. Do not ever call back a one-ring call or number you do not know. We also recommend blocking any calls from 900 numbers and international telephone numbers,” says Brock. “Remember, anytime you hear a previously recorded telephone call, it’s a robocall. Do not press any more numbers, do not try to unsubscribe, hang up immediately.”
By the end of 2019, experts predict that nearly 45% of all phone calls in the U.S. will be scam calls. Chances are high you’ll be targeted by a phone scammer, but you don’t have to fall prey. Never answer or return calls or texts from known unsafe area codes. When in doubt, you can use a reverse phone lookup to search and try to check the number before you pick up or return a call.