Fake phone calls have been around almost as long as the invention of the telephone in the 19th century. Back then, a caller would dial up a good time by prank calling a recipient. These days, fake calls often come from people who have a more malicious intent in mind.
Scammers, robocallers and unscrupulous telemarketers use a variety of tactics to block you from seeing their real identities. In 2018, phone calls were the most-used method of fraud by scammers, according to Statista. Nearly 650,000 instances of fraud complaints involving phone fraud were filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that year, outpacing email fraud almost 6 to 1.
The good news: There are steps you can take to better protect yourself against the onslaught of unwanted calls.
What are fake phone calls?
A fake phone call is one that masks the identity of the caller. The caller could be trying to sell you a product or service—which is legal—or they could be out to scam you and steal your money.
While people are most familiar with robocalls—26.3 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. in 2018, a 46% growth over the previous year, according to Hiya—plenty of other types of fake calls are cropping up thanks to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and call spoofing. A fake phone call that involves one ring? That’s called wangiri, where the caller hangs up after one ring, anticipating you’ll be tempted to call them back.
There’s also neighbor spoofing, which appears as a local call on your caller ID to entice you to pick up. Other equally insidious types of spoofing include scammers impersonating a contact from your phone, a legitimate business or even mimicking government phone numbers.
“VoIP allows a bad actor to quickly and cheaply set up new infrastructure as old numbers get identified and blacklisted,” said William Tsing, head of threat operations at Malwarebytes. “Call spoofing is a great tool for the actors behind these operations to stay hidden.” And with no centralized tool that authenticates a caller’s identity across every phone carrier, spammers are able to stay one step ahead of blacklisting efforts.
What’s tricky about any fake phone call? You simply don’t know who is on the line until you answer the phone or call back a missed call. But all too often, picking up that call is the last thing you should do.
Are fake calls illegal?
In short, it depends on the situation. A prankster calling to tell you to check your refrigerator because it’s leaking isn’t running afoul of the law. However, if the same prankster contacts you multiple times a day and causes you to fear for your safety, that could constitute stalking or another type of illegal activity.
Using *67 to place a private call and block your phone number from appearing on another person’s caller ID isn’t typically considered illegal, either. The legal lines begin to blur if, for example, someone disguises their phone number to make it appear as if it were coming from a legitimate source and then attempts to sell you goods or a service.
The same spoofing trick crosses the line into criminal activity when the caller impersonates a government agency, such as the FBI, the Social Security Administration or the IRS.
How can I protect myself from fake calls?
Most people attempt to stop unwanted calls by placing their phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. But because the registry was created to stop sales calls from legitimate companies, scammers couldn’t care less if you’re on that list.
To guard against fake phone calls, you’ll need to take a tougher approach.
- Don’t respond. You’re never obligated to answer any call.
- Hang up immediately. If you do pick up and realize you might be talking to a scammer, stop talking and end the call.
- Stay in control. Let the call go to voicemail, then copy the number from the caller ID and use a reverse phone search to see if you might be able to find out who is calling and where the call may have originated. If it’s legitimate, you can always call back.
- Carefully answer questions. Scammers can record your voice and use it to try and gain access to your financial accounts. If you reply “yes” to any questions, the audio clip of your answer could be used to approve a fraudulent credit application, for example.
- Use a call-blocking app or ask your phone company about call-blocking technology they might be able to activate on your account.
Fake phone calls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but knowing that you have tools at your disposal and a plan for dealing with them will help you remain level-headed and in control every time the phone rings.