The experience is almost universal—you notice an unknown, but not entirely unfamiliar number flash across your screen during your workday. Because the number shares an area code with your location, you assume that you’re finally receiving a follow-up from your mechanic, or your doctor’s office, or your banker. When you answer, the voice on the other end (often automated) congratulates you on a vague achievement, mentions a sum of money that you’ve been awarded, and launches into a poorly constructed argument about why they need your bank information to deposit the gift. These stories vary, of course: sometimes, it’s a charity that needs your assistance, or a lottery prize, or a “mistake” with your tax return. Once realization dawns, you end the call as quickly as you can and feel relieved that you dodged a potential headache.
Scam calls are a weekly (if not daily) nuisance for most individuals. As frustrating as these calls can be, harnessing one’s ability to distinguish genuine content from telemarketing cons is the ultimate protection against deception. However, what happens if the line between authenticity and artificiality is blurred?
Recently, I have been targeted in multiple scam calls that preyed on human pathos, particularly fear and apprehension. These calls followed a similar process: an unfamiliar voice asked for something unintelligible, expressed urgency, and requested my help to address a problem. However, instead of launching into a monologue about an ambiguous “prize,” the individual on the other end began crying hysterically, and begged me to help her by calling my bank. Though I noticed that the phone number was unsaved, it contained my area code, so I engaged her by asking where exactly she was, if she was safe, and whom I could call to assist her. After the crying continued, I listened carefully for voices in the background of her call, and noticed that an office phone was ringing behind her. This individual was not in a dangerous place—she was in an office, making money off concerned people falling for her routine.
Unfortunately, this alarming pretense is an extremely clever example of a continuous issue. For years, scam artists have coerced confused, frightened people into providing their credentials by claiming that something illegal has occurred, or that money needs to be deposited. Now, it seems that scammers have successfully pivoted to emotional manipulation, leveraging a convincing “shock factor” to trap their victims.
If you type “Why do I keep getting…” into Google, you will receive a list of commonly asked questions, most of which include the words “scam” or “spam.” There is no coincidence here—as our world becomes more dependent upon smart devices, and as technology advances at a rapid pace, the frequency of these scam calls will only increase. Who is behind these calls? Where are these calls really coming from? How do I protect myself?
Exploiting human empathy is genius. However, it is important to be able to vet which calls are genuine and which are not. Luckily, scam calls typically contain several elements that, if spotted quickly, can help you identify a risky situation.
Recognizing the following elements may prevent you from providing your information to a suspicious individual:
- Sense of Urgency: Scammers will often encourage you to provide your information quickly, claiming that the prize you’ve been promised will otherwise disappear, or that you will experience repercussions with your bank. They can also assert that you’ll be subjected to some kind of penalty. The scammer may mention a strict time frame, or hurry through their explanation of the situation.
- Lack of Identity: The scammer may not provide you with their personal information, and will often express reluctance to reveal their employer. If you ask to confirm their place of employment, they may retaliate with annoyance or obscurity.
- Prizes or Promises: Scam calls often reference a gift that requires you to provide personal information prior to its collection. When presented with a potential scam, it is important to remember that a genuine gift (whether from your employer or bank) would not require you to submit payment beforehand.
- Inability to Provide Background Information/Suspicious Background: Scammers will likely be unable to deliver an explanation about how they obtained your information. If they do, they may reference a common practice that you completed through a private party, or did not engage in. As an example, scammers will often ask you to confirm if you recently played the lottery, signed up for a credit card, paid a gas bill, or switched network providers. If an explanation is provided to you, remember that genuine callers would know your full name, provide their full name, and explain exactly where they’re calling from. In addition, no authentic party would ask you to submit sensitive information over the phone.
- Suspicious Phone Number: If the individual calling you explains that you cannot call back on the phone number, raise your suspicions. If you are unsure, ask them to provide you with a call-back number. If you call back and someone else answers the phone, confused about why you’re calling, it is likely because the scammer used phone number spoofing technology to mask their identity. Calls from distant area codes should be avoided, particularly calls from international phone numbers.
It is important to remember that no individual who handles your financial information would ever call you and ask for your details without first confirming security questions. If you do provide your information to a scam, complete the following steps:
- Protect Finances: Call your bank immediately and explain the situation. If you provided credit card details, your card will likely be frozen, and your bank will issue you a new card.
- Protect Credentials: Change your usernames and passwords. This is the most effective way to prevent your personal accounts from experiencing additional issues.
- Protect Accounts: Implement multi-factor authentication anywhere you use credentials.
- Issue a Report: Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
If you are concerned because you regularly receive these calls and want them to stop, consider taking the following precautions:
- Remove your phone number from sources online. Google yourself to see what information may appear, and delete any phone numbers from your online profiles or resumes. If search engines return personal information that you do not want publicized, it is within your rights to contact the search engine and have the information removed.
- Block calls from unknown numbers, and do not answer calls that are not saved in your phone.
- Enable a call screening technology that requires users to provide their name and name of employment prior to reaching you.
- Avoid submitting your phone number to surveys or promotional materials.
As stated previously, if you are receiving troubling or disturbing scam calls, ensure that you report the calls to the Federal Trade Commission and to the police. Overall, these situations can be highly troubling, and often feel like harassment. While we work to avoid scams in our everyday lives, it is important to alert your colleagues and family members about the potential for emotionally manipulative content when they answer calls from unknown sources. If you feel that your workforce is susceptible to spoofed phone calls, it can be helpful to conduct vishing engagements and provide awareness training to your employees.
For a visual explanation of the scam calling process, please see the Scam Calls Diagram.