6 Common Phone Scams and How To Recognize Them

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Criminals are constantly looking for new ways to steal your money and sensitive information. One device they use with great success is the telephone.

A recent report indicates that scam calls this year are projected to cost Americans more than $615 million in reported financial losses: a 40% hike from last year!

In this article, I’m going to go over some of the most common phone scams. I’ll also share information on what you can do to protect yourself, courtesy of money expert Clark Howard and U.S. government agencies that help consumers.

Common Phone Scams and How To Recognize Them

Table of Contents:

Phone Scams Involving the IRS

Even when it’s not tax season, you should be on guard against scams involving calls supposedly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

How This Scam Usually Works: These calls are typical of a genre called “impostor scams,” in which someone impersonates an IRS agent.

The scammers will often use what’s called “spoofing”: The phone number shows up on your caller ID as “IRS” even though the call is not coming from the agency. When you answer the phone, the caller may say you owe the IRS back taxes and might even threaten legal action or an arrest. Or the caller may ask for your bank account information so that you can be sent a tax refund. Don’t fall for it!

The IRS says that its agents never call “out of the blue” about a tax refund. Instead, you’ll get a letter in the mail.

The agency also says its agents do not call to threaten to contact law enforcement.

Here’s more information on the IRS policy about calling taxpayers.

What To Do if You Get This Scam Call

If you get a call from someone posing as a representative of the IRS, the agency’s website says to:

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Phone Scams Involving Fake Customer Support

It can be easy to fall victim to a fake customer support scam, another kind of impostor scam. 

How This Scam Usually Works: You may receive a call from someone pretending to be from a company you’ve done business with. Since so many of us own home computers, some of the more common customer support scams involve callers claiming to be from Apple or Microsoft.

The criminal will typically mention a problem that you’re having with your computer (a problem that doesn’t actually exist) and proceed to ask for your payment information to solve it.

According to Microsoft, “Scammers might also initiate contact by displaying fake error messages on websites you visit, displaying support numbers and enticing you to call. They may also put your browser in full-screen mode and display pop-up messages that won’t go away, apparently locking your browser. These fake error messages aim to scare you into calling their ‘technical support hotline.’”

Microsoft says its agents never call people uninitiated.

What To Do if You Receive This Scam Call

Hang up immediately.

Ignore any unsolicited phone message that requests your personal or financial information to provide technical support. 

Phone Scams Involving Gift Cards

Another popular phone scam involves gift cards.

How This Scam Usually Works: The crook may tell you to pay for something via gift card. Or the scammer may instruct you to pick up a gift card from a store or several stores. The caller might even stay on the phone with you while you visit the store and load the gift card with money, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The FTC says on its website:

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“Gift cards are for gifts, not payments. Anyone who demands payment by gift card is always a scammer.”

What To Do if You Get This Scam Call

You can report gift card scams by contacting the card issuer. Here’s a list from the Federal Trade Commission.

You can also report the gift card scam to ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Phone Scams Involving Car Warranties

There’s a good chance you’ve gotten this scam call at some point.

The car warranty scam is projected to be the most common phone scam in America this year.

“It’s statistically possible that every smartphone owner in the United States will have received more than one car warranty scam [call] by the end of 2021,” according to the report from RoboKiller.

How This Scam Usually Works: The caller will typically tell you that your car warranty is in danger of lapsing and that you can renew it immediately through a specific payment method.

“You can have absolute frauds where people tell you that they’ll cover everything on your car, and people fall for it. But there is no warranty at all. They just steal your money,” Clark says.

“Even if they are some kind of marketing company, the truth is getting paid on a claim from one of these marketing firms is nearly impossible,” he adds.

What To Do if You Receive This Scam Call

First of all, never buy or renew a car warranty over the phone.

The FTC says to hang up on such calls. Additionally, you can report the call to DoNotCall.gov.

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Phone Scams Involving Medicare or Health Insurance

Another phone scam involves enrollment in health insurance plans on the Obamacare website HealthCare.gov or Medicare. 

How This Scam Usually Works: The caller may claim to be a Medicare representative and ask you to sign up for a new card or policy.

The caller may spoof the number of a well-known government agency to get you to answer the phone. When you do, the spam caller may start out with a pleasant conversation to get you to lower your guard. According to the Federal Communications Commission, you may hear a script that goes something like this:

  • “We need you to confirm the numbers on your new Medicare card to activate it.”
  • “Your new Medicare card has an error and we need to replace it.”
  • “You were sent the old paper version and there’s a new plastic version.”

The FCC says you will never receive uninvited calls from Medicare asking for your personal information. You will typically always get a letter in the mail from a government agency before a phone call.

To contact Medicare, call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or visit www.medicare.gov/fraud.

Scammers may also target people seeking help to navigate the Obamacare website. In many cases, the crooks will charge you a fee to help you enroll in a health plan.

Here’s what the FTC says: “People who offer legitimate help with the Health Insurance Marketplace — sometimes called Navigators or Assisters — are not allowed to charge you for their help. If someone asks you for payment, it’s a scam.”

If you need to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, go to HealthCare.gov.

What To Do if You Receive This Scam Call

Hang up the phone immediately.

You can also report the phone number at ReportFraud.ftc.gov

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Scams Involving Social Security

Social Security scams are on the rise, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA).

How This Scam Usually Works: The scammer will call you claiming that there is some problem with your Social Security benefits or that you need to confirm your Social Security number to keep your account active.

The crook may even threaten you with arrest or try to entice you with a promise of increased benefits if you set up a payment immediately via credit card or some other method.

Here’s the thing: The SSA may call you, but a legitimate agent will never threaten you or demand payment.

Here’s what it says on SSA.gov: “If there is a problem, we will mail you a letter. Generally, we will only contact you if you have requested a call or have ongoing business with us.”

What To Do if You Receive This Scam Call

According to the SSA website, if you suspect a scam caller, hang up and report the call to SSA’s Office of the Inspector General.

Final Thoughts

Clark says he’s got one surefire way of handling potential phone scams.

“Consider following my rule,” he says. “It’s a simple rule: If I don’t recognize the number as being from someone I know, I do not answer the call.”

Following Clark’s advice, you can always call the number back if you get a voice message from a legitimate source.

More Resources From Clark.com:

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