Don’t Answer the Phone! How Americans Have Lost Millions to Scammers

Barb Nefer

You might think you’re savvy enough to not get duped, but more and more people are falling victim to bank scams, identity theft, online fraud and similar crimes. Scammers change their tactics as people get wise to their ruses. For example, the IRS warned the public about scammers impersonating agents as far back as 2014, and IRS fraud calls were the No. 1 source of complaints on the BeenVerified Spam Call Complaint Monitor. Then Social Security scammers captured that lead in the first half of 2019. Arm yourself with information against scammers, so you know what to avoid and how to protect yourself.

Last updated: Dec. 10, 2019

Scam No. 1: Social Security Spam Calls From Fraudsters

If your phone rings and the person on the other end claims to be with the Social Security Administration and says that your number was suspended for fraudulent activity, you’ve just encountered the scam reported most frequently to the FTC. Fraudsters threaten arrest unless you wire them money or buy them gift cards to resolve nonexistent legal problems. They often spoof a real Social Security phone number to add a veneer of legitimacy to their scam. They may try other tricks as well, like saying you’ll get approved for Social Security benefits or get more money if you pay them.

According to BeenVerified, complaints about this scam more than tripled in the first half of 2019 as compared to the last half of 2018.

The Social Security Administration says you’ll get a letter if there’s ever a problem with your Social Security records. Its agents will never threaten you over the phone. Hang up on any suspicious callers and file a report.

Scam No. 2: Fake IRS Calls

This scam operates on the pretense of someone claiming they’re from the IRS telling people that they owe back taxes.

“The caller then informs the citizen that if they do not pay, the police will come to their home and arrest them,” said Patrick Simasko, elder law attorney and wealth preservation specialist at Simasko Law. “The caller will then ask for money and demand that the payment is in the form of gift cards.”

Although complaints about this scam dropped in the first half of 2019 as compared to 2018, according to BeenVerified, it’s still a dangerous one to watch out for.

Never provide payment — in any form — over the phone, especially from anyone claiming to be with the IRS. “First and foremost the IRS never calls — and they will never ask for a tax payment with gift cards,” Simasko said.

Scam No. 3: Phishing Phone Calls About Credit Cards

Scammers try to fool victims into giving their credit card numbers over the phone or online under a variety of pretexts. For example, they claim to be able to lower the victim’s interest rate, then charge the credit card without performing any services or use it for their own fraudulent purposes.

You can avoid falling victim to this scam by never giving out your credit card number over the phone.

Scam No. 4: Phony Debt Collectors

This money scam involves phone callers claiming you owe money for a nonexistent bill. The caller demands immediate payment, often using the name of a large company — like Visa or Mastercard — with which you have legitimate dealings.

They might have your personal information, obtained via identity theft, so don’t assume they’re legitimate just because they know details like your address and Social Security number.

Avoid providing personal information over the phone, especially if you aren’t the one who initiated the call.

Learn how to find out if you really have debt in collections.

Scam No. 5: Free Offers That Don't Really Exist

Everyone likes getting something for free, and online scammers play on this desire by dangling free offers that end up costing you money or compromising your information. For example, you might get an email offering an item in exchange for filling out a survey. The scammer might use the name of a popular store like Walmart to earn your trust. At the end of the survey, you’re asked to pay a small shipping fee, but when you put in your credit card, it’s suddenly hit with charges for unwanted merchandise and subscriptions. Don’t expect to get the item you were originally offered as it likely will never show up.

Another common free offer scam involves companies that offer free samples or trials of their products, but hide expensive autoship commitments in the fine print. According to the FTC, they make it very difficult to halt the charges once you realize what’s going on. If you try to return the unwanted goods for a refund, they make it so difficult that you’re likely to give up in disgust.

Avoid these scams by being suspicious of any free offer. Research it before you bite, and be extremely cautious when signing up for anything online. Read the terms and conditions carefully and watch out for prechecked boxes signing you up for unwanted extras. Report fraudulent freebies to the FTC.

While these are some of the top complaints about phone scams, according to BeenVerified, fraudsters have many other tricks up their sleeves. The next slides cover other scams to watch out for when you spend time online or answer phone calls from strangers.

Scam No. 6: Medical and Medicare Fraud

Telemarketers run scams offering unneeded medical devices for which they bill Medicare and doctor’s offices — sometimes pressuring patients to authorize equipment they don’t need.

Callers also misrepresent their products, like those who claim to offer a free medical alert system — bundled with hefty monthly monitoring fees.

Avoid purchasing medical products over the phone; do research to verify the legitimacy of these offers and whether you need the items.

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Scam No. 7: The Grandparent Scam

If you have grandchildren, your first instinct is to help them if they’re in trouble.

“This scam preys on that generosity and love a grandparent often has for their family,” said Ron Long, head of Regulatory Affairs and Elder Client Initiatives at Wells Fargo Advisors. “Knowing that many grandparents and grandchildren only connect a few times a year, the perpetrator will call and impersonate a grandchild, requesting emergency funds. He’ll say he lost his wallet, has been in an accident, or is in jail and needs a bond, explicitly asking the victim to not tell his mom and dad. The impersonator gives the grandparent directions to wire money — typically somewhere that requires no identification to collect.”

Don’t wire money to anyone you can’t confirm is the actual person you think you’re sending funds to.

Scam No. 8: Fraudulent Charity Solicitations

Scammers on the phone or at your door might pretend to be linked to your local police or firefighters or claim to collect for veterans’ organizations to make you believe that giving them money supports a worthy cause. In reality, charities might get only a small percentage of your donation — or receive nothing at all — because the solicitors keep all of the funds.

Research charities through Charity Navigator or Charity Watch before donating any money.

Scam No. 9: Fake Lottery or Sweepstakes Winnings

It’s exciting to think you’ve won millions of dollars like the lucky Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners you see on TV. Unfortunately, that phone call claiming you’re a big sweepstakes winner is probably a money scam.

“With these money scams, a con artist will call the victim and say they won a huge sum of money but have to pay a fee to facilitate the earnings,” said Justin Lavelle, chief communications director at BeenVerified. “Once the scammer receives the wired money, they disappear.”

Bottom line: Never pay money in order to receive a prize.

Scam No. 10: Bogus Tech Support

The elderly are particularly susceptible to this type of fraud, as are people who aren’t familiar with computers — and they get lured in by fake tech support. The scammer might call you, or you might see a pop-up warning about viruses instructing you to call.

“It appears to come from a well-known company,” Long said. “The service provider might request to access your computer, allowing them to see everything on it. In some cases, they might even ask for your credit card number, claiming they need it to fix your computer, when likely they have installed the malware and pocketed the cash.”

Get tech support only from trusted, official sources.

Scam No. 11: Magazine Sales Scams

Magazine sales calls at your door or over the phone might be a ruse to get your credit card or bank information, trick you into paying for a nonexistent subscription or lock you into an overpriced long-term subscription. Traveling sales crews might even steal from your home if you let them inside.

Avoid this scam by shopping around for subscription prices and ordering directly from the publisher.

Scam No. 12: 'Catfishing' or Phony Romance Scams

Single people often look for love online. Seth Ruden, a senior fraud consultant at ACI Worldwide, said that this type of online search opens these romantic hopefuls up to romance scams, which he calls “one of the most novel social engineering typologies out there.”

“Typical of a romance scam is a charming individual developing a long-term long-distance relationship with their victim,” Ruden said. “They do this before requesting a large sum of money to help with an emergency, travel or other empathy-inducing incidents.” The scammer then milks as much money as possible — and finally disappears.

Don’t let emotions override common sense; be wary of giving money to anyone you don’t know well.

Scam No. 13: Craigslist Sales Scams

Sales sites such as Craigslist, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace offer thrifty people the opportunity to turn their trash into some cash. Sadly, many who turn to Craigslist and other sites to sell furnishings and household goods encounter online fraud. Scammers claiming to be in another state or country offer to purchase an item, then send a fraudulent check and get you to wire part of the money back for supposed shipping charges before it bounces.

Prevent this by dealing with local buyers only.

Scam No. 14: Part-Time Job Scams

Some scams target stay-at-home moms and people hoping to supplement Social Security benefits with part-time work by advertising nonexistent jobs and sending fraudulent checks.

For example, the secret shopper scam asks victims to cash the check and use the funds to wire money to test Western Union’s customer service. The check bounces and the victim is then liable for the money, which went to the scammer or an accomplice.

Don’t wire money to anyone you don’t personally know, and don’t cash checks from strangers, either.

Scam No. 15: Prescription Drug Scams

People looking to save money on expensive prescriptions can fall for fraudulent websites claiming to sell people’s necessary medications online for less. At best, you waste your money on ineffective pills — and at worst, you could get ill from taking an unknown substance.

Only purchase medication from legitimate sources — research the company or website that’s offering you a deal to make sure it’s not fraudulent.

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Scam No. 16: Debt Collectors Demanding Payment for Deceased Relatives' Debt

People who lose a spouse or other close relative might be targeted by debt collectors demanding payment of the deceased person’s bills.

What they don’t say is that spouses and relatives often aren’t personally responsible for those debts. Typically, those debts are the estate’s obligation — with a few exceptions.

Avoid this scam by understanding your rights and legal obligations.

Scam No. 17: The 'Yes' Scam

Saying “yes” to a phone caller after a seemingly innocent question like “Is this so-and-so?” or “Can you hear me?” can lead to money scams, according to Wade Rasmussen, president of Amerifund.

“The scammer will record the victim’s answer and use the recorded voice-print of the victim saying ‘yes,’ to authorize fraudulent activity,” Rasmussen said. “Answer such questions from phone numbers you don’t recognize by repeating the affirming question in your answer, instead of saying yes. For example, answer the questions with ‘I can hear you’ or ‘Who might I ask is calling?'”

Scam No. 18: Emails Containing Malware

Ruden said people might receive emails that look like they are from legitimate senders — like a package delivery company — and have links on them that resemble notifications sent by the legitimate entity.

“If you didn’t order anything, the email might be sent by an imposter looking to infect your computer with malware,” he said. “Look for evidence in the webpage address or for bad grammar in the text body to confirm the illegitimacy of the source.”

Scam No. 19: Cryptocurrency Money Scams

People who want to supplement their savings might want to explore the cryptocurrency market, but Steve Razinski of I’ve Tried That, a resource for information on scams, warned that doing so makes them vulnerable to money scams.

The scammers claim that “a secret new algorithm has been released that will guarantee it can pick winning trades or ‘the next Bitcoin’ with 99.9% accuracy,” Razinski said. “It’s all a ploy to get you to deposit $500 into an overseas brokerage,” he said. “The software, if it even loads, usually performs worse than a coin flip.”

Exercise extreme caution when dealing with cryptocurrency, and research any new methods you find — or that find you — to confirm their legitimacy.

Scam No. 20: Bank Fraud Calls

Scammers are experts at using social engineering to get your money, and they often do it with bank fraud phone calls. They claim to be from your bank and scare you with claims that your account is compromised or that someone is using your credit or debit cards. They count on your panic preventing you from thinking clearly. They get your passwords, PINs or other information and use it to steal your money.

Worse yet, if your information is compromised, scammers might try to spear phish you. They get some information about you and use it to draw out more. For example, they might find out where you bank and the last four digits of your Social Security number. They spoof your bank’s legitimate phone number, use the Social Security number information to win your trust and get you to provide information that allows them to drain your bank accounts.

Whenever someone says they’re calling from your bank, hang up and call back to the bank’s phone number that you know is legitimate, even if the caller has some of your personal information. Report the suspicious call to the FTC.

Scam No. 21: Website Password Requests

Most people have passwords for email, online banking, shopping sites and a vast array of other websites that store sensitive information. Online scammers use phishing to steal them and make fraudulent purchases and withdrawals. Their favorite tactic is sending out phishing emails that look like legitimate requests for your login credentials. Their messages claim to be from popular companies like Apple or Spotify and often claim that you’ve placed a big order and need to follow a link to sign in and cancel it. If you follow a link in those emails and enter your password, you send it right into the scammers’ hands.

Never enter a password via an email link, no matter how much you’re tempted to do so. If you think the message could be legitimate, contact the company directly through its website or another trusted method.

Scam No. 22: Jury Duty Scam

Missing jury duty can lead to penalties, and online scammers take advantage of that fact. They’ve taken to impersonating court officials and calling potential victims, claiming they didn’t answer a jury duty summons. They toss out threats of jail time unless you send them money or a gift card to pay a fine. They may claim you have to stay on the phone with them while buying the cards or wiring the money to avoid immediate arrest.

No legitimate official will ever call with these demands, even if you do miss jury duty. Hang up if you get a suspicious call, then contact your local court or police department.

How To Protect Yourself From Phone and Online Scams

Phone scams continue to evolve as people get wise to them, but you’ll stay safe from most fraud attempts if you follow the FTC’s advice. Never believe callers who use scare tactics like threatening you with arrest or who try to dazzle you with prizes or offers that are too good to be true. Never give out any personal information to a caller, and never make payments to unknown parties over the phone. That’s especially true if they demand a nontraceable, nonrefundable form of payment like a gift card or money transfer app. The caller ID might say they’re legitimate, but it’s easily faked. Hang up as soon as the caller asks for information or money and you’ll stop the scam in its tracks.

Online, don’t open email attachments or click links in emails, pop-up windows or suspicious ads. Use difficult-to-guess passwords that incorporate upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters, and don’t give them out to anyone or fill out suspicious logins. Ignore offers that are too good to be true, whether they be for shopping, jobs or anything else. Cut off all contact with anyone who asks you for money or personal details.

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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: Don’t Answer the Phone! How Americans Have Lost Millions to Scammers