It Pays to Know Who's Calling Before Answering the Phone

Protect yourself from fraudulent phone charges

Do you ever receive a telephone call that seems … a little weird? Perhaps you don’t recognize the name on your caller ID and the number or area code is unfamiliar, yet you answer anyway, and whatever the caller says just seems odd or suspicious.

Do you do anything about it?

Four out of 10 who thought a call seemed suspicious and checked their phone bills discovered fraudulent charges, according to one of two Harris polls.

Harris says 17.6 million Americans were victims of a telephone scam in the past 12 months, losing some $8.6 billion — or an average of $488 each.

The chance of being targeted on a mobile phone is somewhat greater than on a landline — 49% vs. 36%. And men are far more likely to lose money in phone scams than are women; 7 of 10 victims are male. Perhaps that’s because men are more likely to answer calls from strangers than are women.

How does answering your phone cause you to get ripped off? Here are two of the most common ways:

  • Crooks pretend to be debt collectors or IRS agents. They threaten and harass you, saying that if you don’t give them your credit card or bank account information immediately, you’ll be arrested or your wages will be garnished. (Note: The IRS doesn’t make telephone calls to people who owe taxes.)
  • “One-ring” scams trick you into dialing numbers that automatically start billing you for every minute you’re on the line. Of course, they put you on hold, and then someone who finally answers is evasive, vague and slow, putting you back on hold until you finally get frustrated and hang up. You won’t realize you’ve been billed for this time unless you check your statement later. Unfortunately, a third of victims don’t check their statements.

Here’s what those polled said they do to protect themselves against phone scams:

  • They never answer a call from an unknown number.
  • They search online for suspicious numbers before returning calls.
  • They use a caller ID app (preferably different from what their smartphone came with).

Unfortunately, 20% said they do nothing. Don’t be one of them. Next time you receive a suspicious call, do all the above — and then carefully check your
phone bill when it arrives.

Originally published in Inside Personal Finance May 2015

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