How to block those spammy, scammy phone calls


cartoon image of man yelling "don't cal me"

By 2019, nearly half the calls made to cell phones will be fraudulent, claims a recent report by First Orion, a phone and data transparency solution provider. This is a huge increase. In 2017, about 4% of cell phone calls were scammy. By 2018, that number had grown to almost 30%. And the upward trend continues, thanks in part to new dirty tricks like “neighborhood spoofing”, in which a scammer spoofs the area code and prefix of the caller dialed, to increase the likelihood of getting an answer.

It’s pernicious, it’s annoying, and it seems like the bad guys are always one step ahead of the technological solutions deployed to end their schemes.

Case in point: third-party blocking apps only blacklist known spam numbers. While this is useful (and while the companies offering this service update the master list of bogus numbers regularly), these apps won’t protect you from spoofed calls, which generally originate from legitimate phone numbers that have been temporarily taken over by scammers.

The good news is that phone manufacturers and cellular service providers, in collaboration with government regulators and third-party privacy and security companies, are rolling out new tools to help you keep your phone as free of spam as possible.

So what can you do?

First, register your number with the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list.
You’ll need to fill out some information and reply to a confirmation email to complete the process. This will also allow you to report spam numbers directly to the FTC, which helps everyone get rid of these annoyances. Reporting unwanted text messages is easier – just forward them to 7726 (SPAM). Most US carriers participate in this program, which uses the submitted information to blacklist numbers and to try to block future spammers.

Second, use your phone’s built-in capabilities to block as many known spammers as you can.

On Android devices, open the Phone app and select the number. Tap “More” and choose whether to block calls, block messages, or block everything originating from that number. You can also add numbers manually by going to Phone > More > Settings > Call Blocking > Block List.

On iPhone, go to Phone > Recent > Info > Block This Caller. At the confirmation message, choose “Block This Contact”.

Your cellular carrier also has services in place to help you win (or at least try to tie!) this frustrating game of spammer whack-a-mole. Note, however, that these services are generally NOT free.

Combining the power of the federal Do Not Call List with the technology sitting on your cell phone carrier’s servers with the software built into your phone can help you stem the tide of scammy calls.

There are also third-party apps available for all models of smartphones that will help you block unwanted calls, blacklist scam callers, and cut down on the annoyance of robocalls. Again, most of these are not free (except Hiya), and almost all require a renewing subscription. But if you’re inundated with these calls, they may very well be worth it. Check out apps like Hiya, Nomorobo, Robokiller, and Truecaller.

Or, if you are an iPhone user, you can deploy the nuclear option: go to Settings > Do Not Disturb > Allow Calls From > All Contacts. Then turn on Do Not Disturb. Permanently. Now you’ll only receive calls from numbers already in your contacts. Everyone else will be blocked. This is great, until it isn’t – you probably want that call about the new job to get through, and you never know when you’ll get an emergency call from an unknown number. So while not perfect, this technique will absolutely still your squalling iPhone if needed.

And if all else fails, you can just let those unrecognized calls roll right over to voicemail.

Summer vacation safety: Avoiding travel fraud & scams


You may be on vacation, but rest assured, scammers never sleep – they are hard at work thinking of new ways to separate you from your money and your identity. Consumer Reports features an article on Summer Scams to avoid – a few of these are about travel: .

  • Vacation rental scams – you book a cute cottage via the web that requires advance payment. Except the cottage doesn’t exist. Remedy: stick to established online rental vendors.
  • Discounted hotel stays. Fraudent websites can look real and make bogus offers. Remedy: Watch out for third party sites selling hotels or other goods and services at a discount. Use reputable services and be sure to dig around on a site to make sure it is the real thing before you take out your credit card.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  talks more about vacation rental listing scams, common signs of a scam, and how to avoid being bilked. They also have an excellent
resource with travel tips designed to help you avoid scams during the travel planning and shopping process.

If you are traveling internationally, you could become an inadvertent victim of a common scam around International Driver’s license. This FTC tip sheet talks about what International Driving Permits are and what they aren’t. It says, “AAA and AATA are the only organizations authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue IDPs to U.S. residents. Both AAA and AATA charge less than $20 for an IDP. If you’re asked to pay more, consider it a rip-off.”

Rick Steves has certainly done his share of international travel over nearly five decades as a travel expert and author. He offers a great collection of common Tourist Scams and Rip-Offs. For another good resources, see this guide to other Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them.

Summer is a great time for travel but all too often, when in a new or relaxing place, it can be easy to lower your guard. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, it’s more important that ever to be alert and maintain high situational awareness. If something seems too good to be true, it almost always is.

See more posts on common scams and frauds
And if you are going on vacation, here are 5 steps to secure your home while you are away!

Children’s car safety seats: Are you using yours correctly?


baby in a car seat

Are you using your child’s car safety seat properly? A 2016 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests you might not be. More than half the car seats looked at in the report were improperly installed or incorrectly used. Similar studies conducted independently showed even higher levels of misuse. While some of the errors found in these studies were small, others were large enough to negate the safety of the seat entirely. As Miriam Manary, senior engineering research associate at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, told the New York Times:

“… somewhere around 35 percent of it is gross misuse where they’re not going to get any protection from that system — things like not securing the child restraint into the vehicle or not harnessing the child in the child restraint system.”

Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death in children, and forty percent of children killed in automobile crashes were unrestrained. Correctly using a child’s car safety seat can reduce the risk of fatal injury by more than half. The child safety group Safe Kids Worldwide offers free children’s car seat checks. Look at their website to see if they’re sponsoring an event near you. If there are no safety checks nearby, Safe Kids Worldwide also offers a list of technicians qualified to check that your children’s car safety seat is properly installed and that you’re using it right.

Here are some pointers to help make sure your children are getting the safest ride out of their car seats:

Don’t forget the top tether. All children’s car seats have at least three anchor straps. Some have five. It’s easy to forget that important top strap.

Check the expiration date. Like all good things, children’s car seats won’t last forever. Wear and tear, exposure to heat and UV light — all these things take their toll. Most convertible car seats are good for 10 years; most infant seats for 6. Check your warranty card to see when yours expires.

Been in a wreck? Throw it out. A damaged car seat is an ineffective car seat. If you’ve been in a serious accident while your child’s car seat was in the car with you, maybe toss it and get a new one.

And finally, some good news: more expensive doesn’t always mean better. All children’s car safety seats have to meet the same federal standards. They’re tested by the NHTSA to make sure that all models on the market conform to those guidelines. Some models may be more convenient, more versatile, better looking, or have a better cup holder – but they’re still providing the same baseline safety features.

So keep these tips in mind, do your homework, and before you take a spin, strap ‘em in!

Parents of toddlers take note: Prevent tip-over accidents in your home


child at risk of a furniture tipover

Can you spot what’s wrong with the picture in this post? If you have young children or know someone who does, the photo should set off warning alarms – but unfortunately, many people just aren’t cued in to the danger of furniture tipovers. For example, there was an important recall notice from IKEA that you might have missed over the holidays. After an 8th child died in a tip-over accident, IKEA re-issued its recall notice for Malm dressers. A 2-year old California boy died after being trapped under an unanchored 3-drawer chest.

Furniture tipovers pose a risk that goes well beyond IKEA. Every year in the U.S., more than 25,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for tip-over accidents and about one child dies every 2-3 weeks from these types of preventable home accidents. Most tipovers – about 80% – involve young children, from 1 to 5 years old. They happen in bedrooms and living rooms and involve chests, drawers, bookshelves, armoires, TVs and other unanchored furnishings tipping onto, trapping and crushing children. The little boy in the photo above is in a hazardous situation. A post on the CPSC On Safety blog explains the importance of anchoring children’s furniture.

In this video clip, a Mom speaks about what happened to her son Shane and offers advice to parent so that they can avoid such a tragedy.

You can also see a video of a near-miss involving twin boys who suffered a tip-over but fortunately escaped serious injury. The parents posted the chilling video online to warn other parents by showing how quickly and easily such incidents can occur when furnishings are unanchored.

We’ve posted on the topic of tip-overs several times. For additional information see our past posts and these other helpful links:

Don’t let email scams hijack your holiday!


illustration of thief robbing santa

As seasonal shopping ramps up both on and offline, there are many opportunities for scammers and thieves to separate you from your hard-earned money.  Dial up your fraud awareness radar to the max – particularly when shopping online. Today, we’ll focus on email scams, a favorite tool for crooks. We’ve been monitoring our email spam folders and monitoring news reports to bring you some common scams this year.

Shipping status phishing emails: Be alert for emails telling you to login to check shipping status for recent purchases. This often works because it uses the names and logos of large retailers that you might actually have made a recent purchase from, such as Amazon or Walmart. Or it might be an email pretending to be Fedex, UPS, or another shipping service. Take the time to check these out carefully – did you make a purchase? Look at the information of the sender in the email header – is it legit? Hover over the link to read where it is taking you before you click. If there is any doubt, go back to the site where you made your purchase and check shipping info form there.

Emails using your name. There are many ways that scammers can get your name so that is no guarantee of legitimacy. They can even spoof your email address so that an email looks like it is coming from your own account. Here are some recent scams we’ve see using our name:

  • Cash advance for {your name}
  • Verify this charge to your {name of large retailer} account
  • Are you {your name)
  • We found your missing money {your name}
  • Hey {your name} !! Do You Remember me ?
  • Why did you text me (your name}

Gift card scams. Be alert for emails or phone calls telling you that you’ve been selected to get a $50 card or that you’ve been sent a card. In the last few weeks we’ve had malicious email attempts touting McDonald’s, Kohl’s, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, CVS, Apple and PayPal. Some of these mails can look very legit. Here are a few tips to stay safe:

  • Don’t buy gift cards from emails or from online auction sites. If you want to a purchase a gift card, go to the actual vendor site or their offline store.
  • When purchasing a gift card, never give private information such as your Social Security number, bank account number or date of birth.
  • Only use gift cards at the intended sites. If a caller or an online vendor tells you they only accept payments via gift cards, beware. Don’t give anyone gift card claim codes. Also, no reputable vendor or service will ask to be paid in Amazon or Apple gift cards, or any other gift cards.
  • If you purchase a gift card in a retail store, ask the cashier to scan the card to verify that the card actually reflects the stated amount and correct balance.

The TN Department of Commerce & Insurance has a good list of common holiday scams: Letter from Santa? Or is it bait from a scam artist? It’s worth glancing at their list of scams as well as  checking out their tips to stay safe.

Other common email scams and pitches we’ve seen in our spam folder lately that lead to malicious sites:

  • Check you Experian score
  • Letters from Santa offers
  • Instant loans: Get approved for $15,000 Immediately
  • Credit card offers
  • Pain drugs and medical marijuana offers
  • You have been selected for clinical trials
  • Please confirm receipt
  • Free samples

A few common signs of scams:

  • Offers that are too good to be true – they usually are fake.
  • Demands or threats to take action now to avoid consequences; emails saying “Final notice.”
  • Requests to update your information or change your password

Crooks have a lot of tricks and are good at exploiting human weaknesses. Here are a few sites that will help you learn more about current scams and improve your online safety savvy.