Cell phones, microwaves, non-stick pans — the last hundred years have ushered in technologies our ancestors could only dream of. Most of them vastly improve our lives, but they don’t come without consequences, and one of the biggest annoyances of the modern age is spam calls.
Overnight, your car’s warranty expired. You suddenly owe thousands to the IRS. These calls prey on our fears, and they leverage the power of psychological manipulation to take your money. Here’s how to fend them off.
What’s Driving Robocalls?
If it seems like you’re getting more spam calls than usual, you’re not alone. As the pandemic wanes, shuttered call centers are opening back up, issuing a steady deluge of phony messages to both cell phones and landlines.
Cold-calling is a highly profitable strategy. Even if just a tiny fraction of people buy a product or divulge their personal information, it’s like earning money for free, because the calls are virtually automatic and broadcast by the millions to unsuspecting phone users. These robocalls are cheap to produce and technically legal, and the risk of getting caught — or called out — is very low.
Blocking them individually doesn’t work. The offending organizations are like the Hydra, with two new insistent calls popping up for every one you add to the Do Not Call Registry. Many of the call centers are based overseas and hard to trace. And because they aren’t actually injuring you, it’s hard to take them to court even if you do manage to track them down.
Phone carriers don’t want to get involved because they might block legitimate callers by mistake. After all, banning robocalls across the board would also silence doctor appointment reminders and citywide alerts. It’s too risky for phone companies to impose a sweeping ban, but too hard to play a game of digital whack-a-mole.
Recognizing Phone Scams
To avoid scams, it’s important to learn how to identify them.
Some hints that someone is trying to swindle you include telling you your bank account is compromised, that you’ve won the lottery, you owe a government agency money or someone has hacked your computer. In nearly every case, the caller — whether real or robotic — will ask you to take some kind of action. This can include paying money, usually in the form of gift cards, wire transfers or prepaid debit cards.
Or, they’ll want you to provide personal information. They might ask for your Social Security number or bank account info. Government agencies and banks will never call you asking for this information, so any call of this nature is almost guaranteed to be a scam.
Why do so many people fall victim to these phishing schemes? It all comes down to the power of psychology, with swindlers using various techniques to make people talk.
First, they often spoof the phone number so it looks like the call is coming from your area. They may start the call by saying, “Can you hear me?” When you answer in the affirmative, they’ll secretly record your answer and use it as proof that you verbally answered “Yes” to some sort of offer or subscription service.
Another technique is starting the call with what sounds like the second half of your name, as if the first syllable was cut off. Since many names end with an “E” or “Y” sound, scammers will start the call with a name like “Andy” or “Kaylee” with the first syllable cut off, and victims will automatically think someone is calling them by their name.
Above all, scammers create a sense of urgency in their calls. They often sound authoritative and want you to think you have to act immediately.
Tips for Avoiding Spam Calls
It’s a good idea to only answer calls from numbers you recognize. If a number is unknown, let it go to voicemail first. If the person leaves a voicemail, check the number online to see if it belongs to a legitimate business before calling them back.
Never make payments with hard-to-trace methods like gift cards or wire transfers. The fact that someone is even asking you to pay in such an unusual manner should raise a red flag.
Withhold your personal and company information. If you suspect the caller might be legitimate, ask for their name, phone number, company address and reason for calling you. A real business should be happy to provide this. Scammers, on the other hand, will hang up, try to change the subject or keep pressuring you into taking action. If you do end up disclosing sensitive information, it’s important to take certain security steps to protect yourself from further damage.
Another technique is to say you’re busy right now. Ask if you can hang up and call back later. Legitimate companies want you to call back, because they’re more likely to make a sale or collect a payment. Scammers will try to persuade you into staying on the phone.
How to Stop Getting Spam Calls
Your best bet is to simply not answer them. However, there are a few other steps you can take to stem the tide of robocalls:
- Read the fine print when signing up for anything. Make sure it doesn’t allow the company to give out your phone number.
- Change your phone settings so your cell phone doesn’t ring if the caller isn’t in your address book.
- Install apps such as RoboKiller and Nomorobo that block automated calls.
- If you answer a robocall, don’t engage in any way. Don’t speak or press any buttons.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
- Report caller-ID spoofing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Fending off the Robots
They say that if you can’t beat them, join them. In this case, however, your best move is avoidance.
You’ll likely always receive spam from time to time. But just like blocking ads on a computer, it’s essential to take a multifaceted approach and accept that a few unwanted calls will slip through the cracks occasionally. At the end of the day, if you don’t pick up, nobody can reach you.