Trends in Trust

Phone scams and schemes: How scammers can use your phone to exploit you

Wednesday, June 23, 2021
A black haired woman with glasses in a maroon dress looks at her smartphone

In a world where we conduct much of our lives on mobile devices, phone scams are becoming much more common. Knowing this, you may ask yourself “can scammers hack my phone?” or “is my information at risk on a mobile device?”

The unfortunate answer is yes, there are many ways in which scammers can steal your money or your info by hacking into your smartphone, or convincing you to give information over a phone call or through a text.

However, being aware of these phone scams will help you protect yourself from any schemes that you may be exposed to. In this article we’ll look at some of the most common phone scams out there so you aren’t unsuspectingly taken advantage of by sketchy businesses or individuals.

Smartphone scamming is rampant

With so much of our personal data housed in smartphones, it’s no wonder that our phones now put us at greater risk of being scammed out of our money or having personal data stolen.

Phishing, no longer only used in email, is a phone scam that frequently happens in text messages schemes where the perpetrator pretends to be a bank, utility company, governmental agency, or another trustworthy organization looking to trick consumers into sharing their personal information. These can often be designed to look like automated messages, claiming that there is suspicious activity on your account or that there’s been an issue with payment. Sometimes, responding to these messages may lead the sender to try and install harmful malware on your phone, even if you don’t share sensitive information. If you receive a suspicious text message, verify the number with the organization claiming to text you, or delete the message altogether and call the organization directly to discuss the issue.

There have also been reports of third-party app developers tricking consumers into downloading their app by making it appear that they are affiliated with a well-known brand or app, while they are actually operating independently. When users download these apps, they often are unknowingly agreeing to a subscription fee (although major smartphone providers like Apple and Google both have password checks in place to help users avoid accidental subscriptions), or the apps may contain malware designed to mine your phone for sensitive info, send text messages using your number, or hack your photos or location information. Before downloading any app to your phone, be sure to check the developer and confirm that it’s affiliated with the brand it claims to represent.

In order to keep your smartphone safe and avoid smartphone scams, make sure you have a password or passcode set on your device and never download suspicious apps or software. If you’re unsure about an app or app developer, check an open review platform such as Trustpilot to see what experiences other consumers have had with the app.

Young mand sitting on a park bench looking at his smartphone with a tree in the background

Robocalls and the damage a recording can do

Despite the sophistication of smartphones, robocalls and automated marketing calls are still a major phone scam that persists today. A robocall is when you answer your phone and it’s a recorded message, instead of a live person on the other end. These scammers can be very creative and there’s a wide range of unique phone scams out there designed to take your money, and there are a few different tactics they use to seem more legitimate.

One of the biggest tactics used is “call spoofing” — where the caller makes it appear that they are calling from a different number than their own. This often means having the first three digits mimic your area code, so you assume it is a local business you’ve recently interacted with or even someone that you may know.

Another tactic is attempting to convince you that the recording is a live person to get you to respond with a “yes”. Asking questions like “are you there?” or “can you hear me” naturally elicit a “yes” from you. But what they’re actually doing is recording your voice when you say “yes” and then using it to authorize charges in your name with credit card and utility companies.

Another common phone scam is the “one ring call scam” where callers will dial and let it hang up after only one ring, often late at night. They call from a foreign area code and they usually call multiple times in one night. Their goal is to annoy you or frighten you into calling back. What their victims don’t know is that all they’re looking to do is pocket the expensive charges and fees from the foreign phone calls.

So how can consumers avoid becoming victims to robocalls and deceitful dialers? You can always go the old fashioned route and let suspicious or unknown numbers go to voicemail, although for many who rely on their personal phones for work aren’t able to let calls from unknown numbers go unanswered. In this case, there are apps such as NoMoRobo and RoboKiller that will filter spam calls for a small monthly fee. These days, many wireless service providers also offer a spam filtering service free or for an additional fee per phone number.

If you suspect you may have fallen victim to a robocall phone scam, alert your local consumer protection agency and your wireless service provider. Depending on your location, you may have certain rights that entitle you to compensation.

Man in casual business attire talking on a smartphone

Imposter phone scams

Not all phone scams are robots, however. Sometimes you have a live human on the other end, attempting to impersonate someone trustworthy in order to get personal information from you. In one case, the caller impersonated someone from the Social Security Administration to scam an elderly woman out of her retirement savings.

The scammer managed to trick her caller ID so that it would show the agency’s actual phone number and the man was prepared in advance and already had her social security information. These two factors added enough sense of legitimacy to convince her he was with the agency. He told her there was an issue with her account and that if she didn’t pay to fix it, her benefits would be cut off.

Shortly after agreeing to send the money, an accomplice called claiming to be from the FBI saying she had been scammed and that she would need to pay more money for them to go after him. She ended up being fooled both times and losing $80,000 in savings. Scams like these prey on the elderly and take advantage of the quickly changing modern world to confuse them.

But the elderly aren’t the only targets of this type of phone scam. With iPhones being so popular around the world, another common scam is imposters posing as Apple Support Agents. They begin by saying that the recipient’s iCloud account has been breached and ask for them to verify their iCloud login info.

These types of phone scams typically use software that helps their number on your caller ID mimic a real support line. After this they pressure the recipient for more information (to access your account and take money that way) or for payments directly. Apple has warned that they will never ask you to share your login or personal information and that if you get an unsolicited call from someone claiming to work with Apple, call up and get in contact with Apple’s support team through their website.

Generally speaking, you should never give personal or financial information to someone over the phone unless you can easily verify that this person is a legitimate representative of the business they claim to work for. As a rule of thumb, government officials will almost never ask for personal or financial information over the phone, so it is best to be wary of anyone claiming to be a government official pressuring you to give this information.

Similarly, anyone from a financial institution or service that demands you pay money to release or track down funds should be met with a healthy amount of skepticism. If you believe that the call is legitimate, get in touch with your bank or financial institution through a formal channel (corporate phone number, website, or retail location) before sending money.

Always err on the side of caution and confirm the identity of an unknown caller

Although there are always going to be new scams popping up, the best thing for you to do is to try and stay up to date on different reported phone scams, and to always be cautious, particularly when it comes to your mobile device, or anywhere that personal or financial information is stored.

If you receive a call from an organization or company that you think may be legitimate, such as a charity or your bank, these are some questions you can ask to verify their identity:

  • Who is calling and why? It may sound simple, but asking someone to verify their name, company affiliation, and location is enough to scare off some phone scammers. It also allows you information to cross reference with a reliable source.

  • Can the information they are looking for can be shared through a secure corporate website? If not, have the caller explain in detail why it is critical that information be shared over the phone. If it sounds suspicious, hang up.

  • Can they call you back later or give you a call back number? If the caller is pushy or aggressive, this is a warning sign. A legitimate telemarketer or company representative should be willing to call back at a time that is convenient for you and allow you time to investigate their reason for calling.

  • What verifying information can they provide? For example, if you get a call from a utility company, ask them to confirm your most recent statement amount or payment date. With a bank, you can ask them to confirm the last place you used your debit or credit card. Most companies where you are an existing customer should be able to provide you with information that would only be available to a company representative.

If someone is pressuring you to act quickly when it comes to a payment or sharing your information over the phone, end the call to get in touch with that agency or company directly. Using a publicly available phone number or go to a physical location to confirm the legitimacy of the phone call.

Most governments also have local agencies to help report and stop these phone scams, so if you Google “Report financial scams” you should find the correct one for your location.

If you’re questioning the legitimacy of a company represented by a caller, you can check their Trustpilot profile page to see what experiences other consumers have had with this company. Similarly, if you’ve had a phone call with a legitimate company, you can share your experience with other Trustpilot users by leaving a review.


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