Phone Scams: Caller ID Spoofing
In a previous article, we talked about robocall phone scams — unsolicited automated calls with pre-recorded messages. As frustrating (and illegal) as these calls are themselves, another phone scam threat (which can include robocalls) is caller ID spoofing.
Caller ID began rolling out to phone lines in the 1980s, becoming more mainstream in the 1990s. Before that, it was anyone’s guess who was on the line! Today, caller ID provides the phone number, city, and sometimes even the caller or company name (whether or not the contact exists in your phone’s system). And of course, it does make it possible for saved contacts to be identified by name, as the phone numbers are matched up.
Unfortunately, more recent technology has hacked this system. What originally removed uncertainty now reintroduces it: scammers can deliberately falsify the number they appear to be calling from, making it appear that the originating number is different than the one actually being used. This is caller ID spoofing.
They’ve Got Your Number
The most basic approach is for the caller to simply block their number from showing up on your caller ID—though this isn’t spoofing. More sophisticated spoofing scams may impersonate a specific company/organization number, but many simply replicate your own area code and exchange (the first 6 digits of your number) to make the call appear local. Callers are much more likely to answer local numbers, thinking it is an acquaintance or local business. Technology also makes it possible to not only send a fake number to your caller ID, but even a fake name!
Is It Legal?
While there are legal uses for spoofing, it’s illegal if the caller is intending to commit fraud or cause other harm. Legitimate marketing calls must transmit to caller ID their actual number or the number of the company/organization being represented. Violators can face $10,000 penalties (for each offense!), but the effectiveness of the practice in scamming consumers keeps the unscrupulous in “business.”
As with any scam call, if you do answer it:
- Don’t interact with spoofed robocalls (don’t say anything or press any buttons; just hang up).
- Do not provide any sensitive information (account numbers, Social Security Number, passwords, etc.). If the caller is asking for this type of information over the phone, it is likely a scam, and it’s safest to hang up.
- If you’re unsure that the caller is who they say they are (or calling from the company they claim to represent), hang up and call the company directly to verify if the call is legitimate.
- Take advantage of your phone company’s features or 3rd-party blocked-call unmasking services.
- Report suspicious calls to the FCC. Reports can help them track down scammers.
Caller ID spoofing is a tool used by legitimate companies all the time, but it is also a weapon in the hands of callers looking to defraud consumers. It can be challenging to fight back and know exactly who is calling you, but by using caution when answering unknown calls—and verifying if they’re legitimate—you can protect yourself from scams misusing caller ID spoofing.