Senior phone scams are on the rise. Most of us know we shouldn’t give out personal information like Social Security or Medicare numbers to people who call us, no matter how official they might try to sound. We’ve heard the spiel enough times to feel confident we wouldn’t let ourselves get taken by phone scammers.
But are we really that resistant? What if the caller says they are calling from the IRS? Your local police department? Even your own child or grandchild? What if the Caller ID display confirms the name and number?
Like our joint and muscle strength, our psychological defenses can weaken as we get older. And as we are getting weaker, the scammers are becoming more cunning.
Is “Virtual Kidnapping” Real?
A recent episode of Dr Phil featured real-life friends of Dr Phil. The couple received a phone call from what appeared on their Caller ID to be coming from their daughter’s phone. When they answered the call, instead of hearing their daughter’s voice, they heard a man shouting that he had their daughter and was holding her for ransom. He demanded Visa cards from Walmart as ransom for their daughter’s life. In the background they heard a young woman crying and believed it was their daughter. The man demanded the father to drive to Walmart and get the Visa cards or he would kill their daughter.
A frightening scenario, to say the least. But who would fall for this “virtual kidnapping” plot? Who wouldn’t just call their child’s phone and check? The scammer had that covered. He had told them not to to call her cell phone because he had her phone and if they did, he would know and he would “put a bullet in her head.” The Caller ID had displayed her number and the call came through with her ringtone. I wouldn’t want to take that gamble.
The girl’s father followed the supposed kidnapper’s demands. As he drove to Walmart, the girls mother used another phone to call the daughter’s work number. The mom determined the girl was safe at work and in no danger, thankfully. She told her husband (he had been stalling the “kidnapper”), who berated the scammer and hung up.
While this couple’s experience was harrowing for 47 tense minutes, they were fortunate in that they did not lose any money through the untraceable gift cards. Scammers, like the ones who terrorized Dr Phil’s friends, and the money sent by frightened victims can disappear without a trace. But how could a kidnapper appear to be calling from their daughter’s number? This is a practice scammers use called “spoofing” according to Dr Phil’s guest expert, a private eye.
What is Spoofing?
Spoofing, according to the FCC website, is when “a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity.”
This isn’t difficult to do and a lot of these scammers are not hi-tech computer hackers. All the scammer needs is an app, which is easily downloaded from the Internet, and your phone number.
How to Handle a Spoofed Phone Call?
The FTC recommends that you
- Do not answer calls from unknown numbers.
- Do not press any buttons, even if you are told it is to stop receiving the calls.
- Do not answer any questions.
- Do not give out any personal information, especially account numbers, Social Security numbers, Medicare ID, passwords, or any other identifying information.
- DO hang up if you are being asked for information. Call the phone number for the company the caller claims to represent from the number listed on your last statement, the company’s official website, or from the phone book.
Don’t feel afraid or intimidated by anyone who calls you on the phone looking for information or money. No one will be mad at you for double checking these types of calls, even if they are legitimate. I’ve gotten calls supposedly from an insurance carrier that seemed legitimate, but when they asked for information, I hesitated. I had heard I should not give out information to people who call me. I was told to only give personal information when I initiate the call myself. I excused myself from the conversation, hung up, and called the company. It turned out that the company representative I talked to legitimized my concern and was happy to help.
Is Your Voicemail Vulnerable to Spoofing?
I thought I was somewhat educated about phone scammers, but the following caution from the FCC took me by surprise:
“If you have a voice mail account with your phone service, be sure to set a password for it. Some voicemail services are preset to allow access if you call in from your own phone number. A hacker could spoof your home phone number and gain access to your voice mail if you do not set a password.”
It makes sense though and I double checked that even when calling my voicemail from my home phone, I have a password in place. This helps keep my phone a little more secure so that no one without the password can gain access to my messages.
Is Spoofing Illegal?
While spoofing does have some legitimate uses (businesses and medical professional for example), according to the FCC,
“Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, FCC rules prohibit anyone from transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value. Anyone who is illegally spoofing can face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.”
Spoofers will also display random numbers with your local area code (a scam called “neighbor spoofing”) to make you think it is a local call coming in. The scammers believe you would be more likely to answer a local call, even if a name isn’t displayed.
Keep in mind your phone number can be spoofed, too. If you get irate calls from people telling you to stop calling them, your number may have been spoofed by scammers using it to scam money from others. This happened to me, although I didn’t know it at the time. The people being called simply call the number back that shows on their phone, and they are generally very unhappy, to say the least. The scammers move on after a while and stop using your phone number, thankfully.
Can Spoofers Display Official Government Numbers?
Even if the actual Social Security Administration name and phone number is displayed on your caller ID, do not answer and if you do answer, do not give out your Social Security number to the caller. AARP recently reported a new scam targeting seniors where spoofers display the Social Security Administration’s official name and phone number on Caller ID.
In the article AARP quotes the acting Inspector General of Social Security,
“SSA employees do not contact Americans by telephone for customer-service purposes and ask for SSNs or financial information. Further, SSA employees will never threaten you for personal information or promise you a Social Security benefit approval or increase in exchange for information.
If you receive a suspicious call from someone alleging to be from the SSA, report that information to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at 800-269-0271 (866-501-2101 for the deaf or hard of hearing). ”
AARP advises that you set your privacy settings on social media to the highest possible, because scammers search for information about your family through these sites. Also, AARP advises, trust your instincts. If something sounds “off” to you, it probably is. Also, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The amount and types of scams being perpetrated on seniors is seemingly endless. Learn more about other types of scams on AARP’s Fraud Resource Center.
Can Older Adults Defeat Caller ID Spoofing Scams?
Scammers prey on older adults because they know they are more vulnerable and are more likely to have money or property saved over a lifetime. The callers work to evoke anxiety, fear, and distress in the older person in that moment so they cannot logically process other options. Once a scammer has their target in an emotional state of mind, they’ll try to get the person to act impulsively so they will do whatever the scammer tells them to do.
It may help to have the name and number of a trusted family member or friend to call if you get a call from someone asking you for money. Discuss beforehand with your trusted person that in the event you get one of these calls, you will call them before giving out any money or information to unsolicited callers. If you do get a call like this, hang up from the conversation and call your trusted friend or family member and ask them to help you sort out if the call is legitimate.
Scammers will play on an older person’s emotions and fears. My kids made up a printout (compiled from information on the FCC and AARP websites) to keep with our phones so that we can think logically and not rely on our emotions if called by a persistent, threatening, or frightening individual. You can download a pdf copy of our Defeat Phone Spoofers Printout here.
Have you been contacted by a scammer? Let us know in the comments below. Your experience may help others.