When Your Contacts Call, But It’s Not Really Them

August 8, 2023

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    Are You Getting Strange Phone Calls From Your Contacts?

    When the caller ID on Chelsie’s phone said her mom was calling, Chelsie never expected what would come next. As her mother’s voice quickly faded into the background, a man claimed Chelsie’s mom was being held hostage — and he demanded a $1,000 ransom via Cash App for her safe return. 

    Terrified, Chelsie sent the money and then quickly phoned her mother back, only to discover that she was completely fine [*].  

    Phone scams have become a $40 billion problem for Americans — with fraudsters regularly using phone number spoofing technology to make it look like you’re getting calls from your contacts [*].

    So, how can you protect yourself and ensure that incoming calls from your contacts are legitimate? 

    In this guide, we’ll explain how phone number spoofing works, how scammers get your contacts, and what you can do if you’re being targeted by spoofed calls. 

    What Is Phone Spoofing? How Do Scammers Trick Your Caller ID?

    Phone spoofing occurs when scammers use voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology to manipulate your caller ID into displaying a name or number that you trust. 

    For example, in neighbor spoofing scams, fraudsters use local numbers or area codes to trick you into answering their calls — and then try to get you to send them money or give up sensitive information, such as your Social Security number (SSN). 

    Unfortunately, while caller ID spoofing is deceptive, it’s not illegal

    Some businesses use phone spoofing to maintain a single customer-facing number or to protect personal contact information — such as when doctors use their home phones to contact patients. 

    The real danger with call spoofing happens when spoofers abuse the technology and make fake calls from your contact list to get your personal or financial details. If you’re receiving spoofed calls, you could be at higher risk of identity theft.

    Get award-winning protection against scammers: If you’re being targeted by spoofed phone calls, your personal information and identity could be at risk. Save up to 33% on Identity Guard and secure your identity and finances from fraudsters.

    How Do Scammers Get Your Contact List?

    If you're getting spoofed calls, you’re probably wondering how scammers got access to your contact list in the first place. The scary truth is that it’s easier than you think for fraudsters to access your phone or personal information. 

    Here are some of the ways that scammers can access your contact list:

    • You accidentally allow a malicious app access to your contact list. Many smartphone apps, websites, and cloud services request access to your contact list when you sign up. If you grant access to a malicious app, or a legitimate app gets hacked or breached, spoofers can access all of the numbers in your contact list. 
    • A company that has access to your contact list was hacked. Whether it's your email service, a retail website, or a social media platform, if these entities experience a cyberattack, your personal details could become compromised and exploited by criminals.
    • Data brokers sold your number to scammers. Data brokers collect personal information from various sources and sell it to advertisers, businesses, and, sometimes, fraudsters.
    • Your phone was hacked. If scammers gain unauthorized access to your device, they can directly extract your contact information and utilize it for malicious purposes.
    • You linked your phone number to a social media profile. If your phone number is visible on public platforms, like Facebook or LinkedIn, scammers may scrape this information and use it for phishing attacks or spoofing scams.
    • You unintentionally consented to a service selling your information. Sometimes, in the fine print of service agreements or app permissions, you might inadvertently allow your personal data, including your phone number and contact list, to be sold or shared.
    • You participated in an online survey or sweepstakes. Often, scammers disguise data collection schemes as surveys or contests. By entering, you may unknowingly provide them with your details, which they can use or sell to other scammers.

    The bottom line: Don't ignore spoofed calls — instead, regard them as warning signs. If criminals are using your contacts to target you, they may have other sensitive information that could put you at risk of identity theft. For peace of mind, consider signing up for Identity Guard’s award-winning identity theft protection solution. 

    What To Do If You're Getting Spoofed Phone Calls

    1. Hang up as soon as you hear a robocall
    2. Never respond with "Yes" to unknown callers
    3. Inform your contacts
    4. Consider signing up for a spam call blocker
    5. Report the spoofed calls to your carrier
    6. File a complaint with the FCC and FTC
    7. Consider signing up for identity theft protection

    Americans are drowning in spam and scam calls. But if you’re getting suspicious calls from your contacts (and it’s not them) or even from unknown numbers, there are steps that you can take to protect yourself.

    Here’s what to do:

    1. Hang up as soon as you hear a robocall

    You won't recognize a spoofed call until you answer the phone, but hearing a robotic voice is a clear sign that you're dealing with a scam. In this situation, you should hang up immediately. 

    If you engage with the scammers, it lets them know they’ve reached a live number and they’ll continue to target you. If someone leaves you a robocall via voicemail, don’t call back.

    What to do if you answer and hear a robocall:

    • Hang up and block the number. Do not respond or engage with the scammer in any way. If they’ve used a number that isn’t in your contact list, block it to prevent repeated harassment. 
    • File a complaint with the FCC. While there are legitimate uses for robocalls, companies can only use them if you've given them permission. If they're using a spoofed phone number, they don't have your consent. You can file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if you’re receiving robocalls.

    Need help? Learn more about why you’re receiving spam calls and how to block them on Android and iOS devices.

    📚 Related: What To Do If You've Been Scammed Over the Phone

    2. Never respond with "Yes" to unknown callers

    Identifying a deceptive call before answering it can be challenging. However, if an unknown caller requests a "Yes" response from you, it could be a trap. 

    Scammers record your voice saying “yes” and then use it to access phone services that utilize voice-print technology, such as your bank or other accounts. 

    What to do when an unknown caller prompts for a "Yes":

    • End the call. It’s best to never respond to a spammer. If something feels off, end the call right away. If you start a conversation, avoid providing any unnecessary information that could be misused.
    • Beware of people asking, “Can you hear me?” This is a common tactic used to get you to say “yes.” They may reference your name and ask if that’s whom they’re calling. If you’re asked either of these questions from an unfamiliar number or a voice that doesn’t sound like the person you think is calling, you should ask “Who’s calling?” (instead of replying with an affirmative).  

    3. Inform your contacts that their numbers are being spoofed in calls

    If you're receiving scam calls from people and phone numbers in your contact list, you should let them know right away so they can take steps to protect their numbers. 

    📚 Related: What To Do If a Scammer Has Your Phone Number

    4. Consider using an AI-powered spam call blocker

    With the rise of spoofing scams, it’s more important than ever to protect your cell phone and landline number. One option is to use an AI-powered spam call blocker that can differentiate between genuine and fraudulent calls in real-time, reducing your exposure to potential scams.

    These tools monitor for known spam and scam numbers and can screen unknown numbers for you before putting the call through. 

    You can also look for spam-blocking tools from your cell phone provider. These are less sophisticated, but they can still help reduce the amount of spam calls you receive. 

    Here are a few options: 

    • AT&T ActiveArmor (Android, iPhone). Previously known as “Call Protect,” AT&T’s free call protection app provides basic call-blocking features. 
    • T-Mobile Scam Shield (Android, iPhone). T-Mobile’s Scam Shield app blocks spam calls for free, but it also offers a premium version that includes block lists and proxy phone numbers.
    • Verizon Call Filter (Android, iPhone). Verizon’s Call Filter gives you slightly more control over the kinds of numbers you block. There’s also a paid version, Call Filter Plus, which lets you add caller ID and spam lookup features. 
    • U.S. Cellular Call Guardian (Android, iPhone). Call Guardian identifies and blocks unwanted calls and spam texts. It also has premium features (included with some cell phone plans) that let you create personal blocking lists that sync across your devices. 

    5. Report the spoofed calls to your carrier

    If you've been targeted by a spoofing scam, it's important to let your phone carrier know. They can provide assistance and employ their own measures to counter fraudulent activities.

    Most major cell phone providers have online forms for reporting fraud. If you receive a spam or scam text message, you can report it by forwarding the message to 7726 (SPAM)

    📚 Related: Account Services Call Scams: Everything You Need To Know

    6. File a complaint with the FCC and FTC

    Filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) won’t reduce the number of spam calls you receive, but it will aid in the fight against phone spoofing. 

    Unwanted calls, including illegal and spoofed robocalls, are the top consumer complaint that the FCC receives [*]. Reporting spoofing scams helps these agencies investigate known spammers and shut down shady business practices.

    How to file a complaint with the FCC:

    • Visit the FCC's complaint page, and then select “phone.” 
    • Scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “To proceed with filing a complaint with the FCC, please fill in this form.” 
    • Complete the form by providing your contact information and a description of the scam. 

    How to submit a complaint to the FTC. 

    • Visit the FTC’s fraud reporting page and click on “report now.” 
    • Select the button for the appropriate scam, and continue answering the questions based on the type of call you received and what the scammer wanted.

    What about the National Do Not Call Registry? Adding your phone number to the National Do Not Call list (DoNotCall.gov) can prevent marketing agencies and telemarketers from reaching out to you. Unfortunately, it won’t stop fraudsters from targeting you with spoofing scams. 

    7. Consider signing up for identity theft protection

    If you’re being targeted by phone scammers, it means that, at a minimum, fraudsters have access to your contact information. However, it’s even more likely that they’ve found more sensitive information about you that they can use to steal your identity, gain access to your online accounts, or break into your financial accounts.

    Identity Guard offers powerful identity theft protection against hackers and scammers. 

    With Identity Guard, you get:

    • Award-winning identity monitoring and protection. Identity Guard monitors your most sensitive personal information, passwords, and financial account details across the Dark Web, public records, and online. If it finds them anywhere they shouldn’t be, you’ll get a notification with guidance on what to do. 
    • Financial account monitoring and near real-time fraud alerts. Identity Guard also keeps tabs on your financial accounts — including bank, credit, and investment accounts. You’ll get alerts in near real-time of suspicious activity or over-limit transfers and withdrawals. 
    • $1 million in identity theft insurance. If the worst should happen, every adult member on an Identity Guard plan is covered for up to $1 million in eligible losses due to identity theft — including stolen funds, lawyer fees, and more. 
    • Safe Browsing tools. Identity Guard helps you stay safe from hackers and cybercriminals with a secure password manager and Safe Browsing tools that warn you of fake websites and malicious links. 

    🛡 Protect yourself with Identity Guard. Get 33% off Identity Guard when you sign up today.

    Is Your Phone Number Being Used by Scammers? Do This!

    Discovering that a spoofer is exploiting your phone number can feel invasive and alarming. But taking quick and strategic action can help mitigate the problem. 

    Here's what to do if you find your phone number being spoofed:

    • Contact your mobile carrier. Let your carrier know about the issue right away. Both Verizon and AT&T have dedicated fraud pages. They can guide you through the possible steps to address your situation. 
    • Change the call security settings on your phone. Both iPhones and Android devices have built-in security features that allow you to block or filter calls.
    • Create a new voicemail message. Since scammers are using your number to call others, you may want to update your voicemail. Explain the situation briefly and advise callers to disregard any suspicious calls appearing to come from your number.
    • Check for signs of a SIM swap scam. If your number is being spoofed, it's worth checking for signs of a SIM swap scam. In this scam, fraudsters transfer your number to another SIM without your knowledge. 
    • Install a spam call-blocking or spoofing protection app. Apps like AT&T's Call Protect can provide additional security by identifying and blocking fraudulent calls.
    • Check to see if any more of your information is out there. If criminals obtained your phone number from a recent data breach, it’s possible that other personal information is available on the Dark Web. You can use a Dark Web scanner to see what details might have been leaked.

    Should You Change Your Phone Number If It’s Being Used by Scammers?

    If the spoofed calls persist, changing your phone number with your service provider can offer a fresh start. 

    This is a drastic measure and should be used as a last resort. Remember: scammers can always find your new number and continue to spoof it — and target you. Only consider changing your phone number in extreme situations. 

    If you decide to get a new number: Make sure you inform your contacts so they can add your new number (and delete the old one) in their address books. Also, take this opportunity to tighten up your account’s security. Set up two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible, and be cautious about where and with whom you share your new number.

    The Bottom Line: Protect Yourself Against Spoofed Number Scams

    Call spoofing is on the rise, and scammers are only getting more sophisticated with their tactics. To avoid serious consequences — like identity theft — it’s important to be vigilant. 

    If the worst has happened and you’ve fallen for a spoofed number scam, act quickly to secure your accounts and identity. Here’s what to do: 

    • Freeze your credit. This prevents scammers from using your personal information to open new accounts or take out loans in your name. To freeze your credit, contact each of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — and request a freeze.
    • Secure your accounts. Update passwords, and enable 2FA whenever possible to limit unwanted access to your sensitive accounts. 
    • Contact your bank. Alert your bank and credit card companies immediately. They may be able to stop transactions, or close compromised accounts and help you recover money that you transferred to the scammer.
    • Report the scam. File complaints with local law enforcement and relevant agencies like the FTC. 
    • Monitor your accounts. Regularly check your bank accounts and credit reports for suspicious activity, such as accounts you didn’t open or changes you didn't authorize. 

    For added security and peace of mind, consider signing up for Identity Guard’s award-winning identity theft protection solution.

    Providing 24/7 identity theft and credit protection, Dark Web monitoring, Safe Browsing tools, and $1 million in insurance coverage, Identity Guard prevents scammers from having the upper hand. 

    Hang up on phone scammers. Save 33% when you sign up for Identity Guard today.

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers