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.

Fraud roundup: Latest scams and a BBB Scam Tracker Tool


illustratin of fraudster tricking man with a money bagFraudsters spend all their waking hours concocting new and creative ways to separate you from your money. Even very smart people can be conned by smart criminals. It helps to be aware of common scams and get tips from experts on how to avoid them. Here’s a roundup of some recent scams that have hit our radar.

Home buyer scam: Scammers are tricking people out of enormous payments as they’re about to close on a house

“It’s a nightmare scenario for any homebuyer: the day before closing, a scammer manages to trick you into wiring your down payment to an offshore account. You lose your hard-earned money and you lose the house, and there’s no way you can get either one back.

That’s how some criminals have adapted the common “business email compromise” scam – so-named because it used to almost exclusively target businesses – to focus on individuals, especially people who are involved in a pending real estate transaction.”

Business scam: Hackers increasingly target reputations through reviews sites, experts say

“Hackers are increasingly attempting to extort companies and individuals by threatening severe reputational harm through online reviews sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, security experts tell The Hill.”
While internet extortion schemes are not new, their perpetrators now appear to be spamming sites where enough negative reviews can scare away firms’ customers.
“It is definitely an increase that we see — that more and more hackers are misusing the whole brand reputation and any type of review process to blackmail and extort companies,” Candid Wueest, a Symantec threat researcher based in Europe, told The Hill. “Of course the same would be harmful for anyone who has an online profile such as hotels — we’ve seen it with restaurants as well, like TripAdvisor or Yelp.”

Fake checks: New report calls fake check scams an “exploding epidemic”

“In a new report, the Better Business Bureau warns that regular checks, cashier’s checks, and money orders can all be forged. They found fake check fraud in reports “about employment frauds, sweepstakes frauds and smaller numbers in areas such as bogus grants, tech support, online purchase fraud, and rental frauds.”
“What they all have in common is that the check is counterfeit and just because the money is credited to your account does not mean the check is good,” Baker said.
… “If you get a check from somebody that is not a family member or in person or is not a payroll check, you need to wait at least two weeks to be sure that that check really is good and is not counterfeit,” Baker said.

Jobseeker scam: Phony Amazon Job Asks Applicants to Pay Upfront

It sounds like the perfect job: work at home, make thousands of dollars a month, and have a career with famous corporation. But this new twist on an employment scam is fooling victims into paying hundreds of dollars for a job at Amazon that doesn’t exist. Reports to BBB Scam Tracker about this con have increased steadily this summer.

Phone fraud: Worried About the I.R.S. Scam? Here’s How to Handle Phone Fraud

“I.R.S. scams, as well as other telefraud scams, are conducted by multiple groups and individuals operating out of India, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Jamaica and other countries,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “While this prosecution is a major success in disrupting the largest group of conspirators operating out of multiple call centers identified to date, other perpetrators of the IRS scam and similar scams remain at large.”

Fraud fighting tool from the BBB

The Better Business Bureau offers an online Scam Tracker that allows you to find out recent scams that are happening in your local area. Use a clickable map to find scams in your area that are occurring in real time. You can click for details of the scam, the business name that the scammer used, the victim’s zip code and the dollar amount of the loss. You can also report scams to help others out.

 

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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!

Seniors: Be alert for a new Medicare scam


Nationwide, commissioners of insurance departments and state attorneys general are sounding the alert: there’s a new wave of Medicare scams.

Medicare is issuing new cards to beneficiaries – they started mailing them in April and it will take a year to distribute them all. The purpose of the new cards is to make them more secure and reduce the potential for identity theft by replacing a beneficiary’s Social Security number with a new, secure number. Here’s a picture of what the new card will look like.

picture of new Medicare card

These cards are issued by mail and they are free. You don’t need to do anything as long as your address is up to date. You can sign up at Medicare.gov to get an alert when your new card is in the mail. If you need to update your mailing address, visit your My Social Security account.

Of course, scammers are jumping into action to try to sow confusion and get between you and your new card. Medicare issues these tips to avoid scams:

  • Medicare will never call you uninvited and ask you to give us personal or private information to get your new Medicare Number and card.
  • Scam artists may try to get personal information (like your current Medicare Number) by contacting you about your new card.
  • If someone asks you for your information, for money, or threatens to cancel your health benefits if you don’t share your personal information, hang up and call us at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).
  • Only give personal information like your Medicare Number to doctors, insurers acting on your behalf, or trusted people in the community who work with Medicare like your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).

Online purchase scams top the BBB list of 2017 consumer fraud


Mouse trap with dollars to depict online scams

Online purchase scams are now the riskiest form of consumer fraud, according to a new fraud report from the Better Business Bureau, jumping from #4 in 2016 to #1 in 2017. BBB says that online scams were most frequently related to pets, clothing, cosmetics, electronics, and automobiles. Free trials involving cosmetics or nutritional products were also common.

BBB’s top 10 scams of 2017 were:

1. Online purchase scam (up from #4 in 2016)
2. Investment scam (up from #6 in 2016)
3. Employment scam (no change)
4. Advance fee loan scam (up from #5 in 2016)
5. Fake check scam (down from #2 in 2016)
6. Home improvement scam (down from #1 in 2016)
7. Tech support scam (up from #8 in 2016)
8. Travel/vacation scam (new to top 10, #12 in 2016)
9. Family/friend emergency scam (no change)
10. Government grant scam (new to top 10, #11 in 2016)

This BBB chart shows the most common means of scammer contact. (See more charts from the report.)

One bit of good news is that although the number of reported incidents increased, the percentage of consumers who actually lost money fell from 18.8% to 15.8%, so maybe users are getting smarter about scams. One other interesting observation in the report is that young people are more susceptible to scams than older folks, but although susceptibility decreases with age, the dollar cost of the scam goes up with age.

To avoid scams, be on high alert for unconsolidated emails and phone calls. Some common tactics to trick you include:

• Deals that are too good to be true
• High pressure tactics
• Urgency – you must decide now; offer is expiring; etc.
• Threats or intimidation – you”re under investigation, you will be arrested if you don’t act now
• Isolation – trying to force a decision before you talk it over with someone else

To learn more about any of the top 10 scams of 2017, download a full copy of the 2017 BBB Scam Tracker Annual Risk Report: New Trends in Scam Risk. Also, follow BBB’s scam tips to stay up-to-date on emerging threats.