How to Spot IRS Fraud and Other Big Phone Scams So You Don't Get Fleeced

Phone Fraud

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Phone Fraud
Oleksii Spesyvtsev/istockphoto

Phone Fraud

Thousands of people are bilked every year by criminals who enter the lives of their victims through their telephones. AARP once found that about half of all mobile calls were fraudulent, and that the problem was worsening. Fraudulent landline calls are declining as the technology fades, but scam calls to fixed lines still nab plenty of unsuspecting victims. And while seniors are often the target of scammers, anyone can be taken for a ride. Here's everything you need to know about phone scams — including ones that involved fraudsters impersonating IRS officials — and how to avoid becoming a victim.  

Related: 12 Times You Should Never Give Out Your Social Security Number

Be Aware of the Latest Threats

Be Aware of the Latest Threats

Like any other fraud, phone scams evolve and change out of necessity once the public gets wise to the scam. This means there's always a new scam on the horizon or an updated version of an old one. Here's a look at some of the most current phone scams, according to the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Justin Lavelle of BeenVerified, an online background check platform.

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Imposter Scams

Imposter Scams

Imposter scams come in many forms and target a broad range of victim demographics. They all, however, work the same way. A scammer purporting to be someone you know or a representative from an organization you trust tries to trick you into giving them money in a phone-based scam.

Related: 11 Signs You're Getting Scammed While Shopping Online

IRS Imposter Scam

IRS Imposter Scams

The now-common IRS phone scam, one of the most prevalent and anxiety-inducing imposter scams, is especially common around tax season. "When the call is answered," Lavelle says, "the scammer says the IRS is suing you and you owe them money and [they] threaten to send the police if not paid within an hour. The latest phone scam even includes caller ID showing the letters 'IRS' when they call. The key to avoiding being hit by these scams is to know that the IRS does not make threatening phone calls, nor do they request wire transfers over the phone." The FTC agrees, and cautions against ever paying a tax bill with a prepaid debit card, which the IRS would never request.

Cashless digital wallet payment

QR Code Imposter Scams

Chances are you've been seeing more QR codes lately, even if you don't know them by name. These barcode-like symbols that you scan with your phone have become increasingly popular during the pandemic, including with stores and restaurants who use them for quick order pickup or to launch virtual menus. But according to the FBI, cybercriminals are also using legitimate-looking QR codes to direct people to sites that can steal personal data or payments. One of the best ways to protect yourself: Thoroughly examine any website you're directed to from a QR code, the FBI says. This includes by checking the URL, which shouldn't include typos or other suspicious-looking information, and by avoiding using such websites for any form of payment.  

Grandchild Imposter Scam

Grandchild Imposter Scam

As the name implies, the grandchild scam preys on the elderly, with the con artist calling the victim and posing as a grandchild who has fallen into a desperate situation such as running out of money or encountering legal trouble while traveling. "The scammer will then ask for money to be wired to a foreign address and then completely disappear once the money is received," Lavelle says. "If you receive a call like this, always reach out to your grandchild's phone number or talk to others who can clarify whether the grandchild really is in trouble and needs help."

Other Imposter Scams

Other Imposter Scams

IRS, debt collector, and grandchild scams are have been among the biggest threats, but the FTC also warns of several closely related imposter scams. Family emergency scams expand the grandchild scam to any family member. Online dating scams prey on people searching for love by establishing trust with a prospective romantic partner. Tech support scammers call to report a "problem" with your computer that can be fixed only if you download predatory software.

Lottery Phone Scams

Lottery Phone Scams

When it comes to the lure of easy money, Lavelle offers a piece of advice that comes with virtually no exceptions. "If you receive a phone call about winning a lottery you never entered," he says, "don't believe it and hang up the phone. With this type of scam, a con artist will call the victim and say they won a large sum of money but have to pay a fee to facilitate the earnings. Once the scammer receives the wired money, they disappear. Many of these types of calls originate in Jamaica." The FTC also puts lottery scams toward the top of its concerns and warns of scammers based in Canada — and reminds potential victims that the sale or purchase of cross-border lottery tickets by mail or phone is illegal.

Young man refueling his vehicle while looking worried at the high gas prices.

Fuel Relief Program Scam

It sounds like the perfect solution to high gas prices — the Fuel Relief Program. The problem is, it doesn't exist. But scammers have come up with a plan that's sure to entice people eager to get some relief — they call, text, or email victims, informing them they're eligible for the program if they just provide some personal and even financial information. It's a way of stealing your personal information and using it — and you won't see a cent. 

Related: How to Get Cheaper Gas

Debt Collector

Debt Collector Scams

Just as the name implies, this scam involves a con artist pretending to represent a collection agency offering a dramatic discount on a debt you didn't incur, which is often accompanied by a threat to call law enforcement if you refuse. Always refuse to pay a debt without a legally required "validation notice," as well as the name of the creditor, amount of the debt, and the caller's name, address, and phone number.

Stressed Man on Phone with Credit Card
Chainarong Prasertthai/istockphoto

Rent Scams

People who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus lockdown, or just enough of their income that paying rent became hard or impossible, may have heard from scammers claiming they could provide money for rent or legal help to avoid eviction — but it's always for money upfront or in exchange for personal information. “Those are dead giveaways that it’s a scam,” the FTC says. Don't fall for it. 

Delivery Tracking on Cell Phone

Online Shopping Scams

The coronavirus lockdown brought a surge in online shopping, which inevitably brought a bunch of scams designed to take advantage of the trend. Fraudsters might contact people with claims that there's a package waiting for them if they just click on a link or hand over identification information; and others try to pass themselves off as Amazon representatives (or, in a similar scam, as Apple customer support reps with concerns about users iCloud accounts). 

Distressed Upset Man on Phone

Threats to Immigrants or Parents

When the Trump administration widened its deportation efforts from criminal activity to nearly any immigrant, that made even documented, legal immigrants feel vulnerable — and scammers took advantage of that, the FTC says. The result: calls from people claiming to be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying someone's immigration status was being revoked unless money was handed over. More fake fears were directed at parents who have been sent photos of their own kids taken from social media, and threats of violence.

Closeup of Netflix Website in Safari Brower on a Laptop Screen, Selective Focus

Netflix Phishing Scams

So-called Netflix scams are most likely to come through email or text, but you could get a phone call as well. In this con, the criminal pretends to be from Netflix or another popular streaming service and asks you to update your payment or other private information to avoid a service interruption. In email form, the scam is often accompanied by a dangerous link the scammer wants you to click.

Enduring Scams That Refuse to Die

Enduring Scams That Refuse to Die

Some scams have been around for years or even decades, bilking innocent victims out of their money or identities. In some cases, tried-and-true phone scams are updated and reinvented. In other cases, the same old con keeps finding victims year after year.

Predatory Robocalls

Predatory Robocalls

Robocalls are nothing new. In fact, they're so common that most people pay them little mind, which is part of what makes predatory robocalls so dangerous. "In today's landscape, it is not uncommon to receive multiple robocalls a week on both your landline and your cellphone, even though you've registered your phone numbers with the Do Not Call Registry," Lavelle says. "They're offering everything from lower credit card rates to free vacations and medical alert devices. It's not only annoying, but many of these calls come with a high probability of a scam."

Traditional Phone with Handset on the Left and Caller ID on the Right, Selective Focus

Caller ID Spoof

The caller ID spoof manipulates caller ID software to add an extra layer of legitimacy to the con. The scammer makes the caller ID display your bank's actual name or phone number on your phone, which lulls victims into a false sense of security before the call is even answered.

Spear Phishing
FlyMint Agency/istockphoto

Spear Phishing

Phishing scams have long been identified as frauds that try to gain the victim's trust by presenting some of the victim's personal information. If the scammer has the last four digits of my Social Security Number and my ZIP code, the victim assumes, the caller must truly be from the bank or the phone company. Spear phishing expands on the old phishing scam by offering some information in an effort to get the customer to surrender the rest. For example, the "bank" might call under the guise of trying to sort out irregular spending patterns on your debit card. To gain your trust, the swindler will offer the last four digits of your SSN then ask you to provide the rest of the number "for security purposes." Spear phishing often works in conjunction with the so-called caller ID spoof.

Irrational Fears

The Utility Scam

Another dated but still effective fraud is the utility scam. In this case, the criminal pretends to be calling from the water, gas, or electric department in pursuit of an outstanding bill that must be paid immediately to prevent service interruption. This scam often targets not just residents, but small businesses with owners likely too busy to check on the details and more reluctant to risk having their water or lights shut off.

The Neighbor Scam

The Neighbor Scam

The neighbor scam employs the caller ID spoof to make it appear that someone is calling the victim's phone from a local number, which people are more likely to answer. The caller pretends to be speaking for a neighbor in an emergency or even from a school nurse claiming to need personal information for their files.

Jury Duty Scams

Jury Duty Scams

Skipping jury duty is a serious matter that can result in real consequences. One of those consequences, however, will not be a phone call from a U.S. marshal or any other government agent threatening arrest if the victim doesn't immediately pay a fine. That's the jury duty scam, and although it's been around for a long time, it still finds new victims every year.

Recovery Scams

Recovery Scam

The recovery scam just might be the worst of the bunch for one simple reason: it targets victims who have already been victimized. Scammers buy and sell so-called "sucker lists" — records of people who have already been scammed — and use that information to follow up with good news: They've recovered the money you lost in the original scam. All they need is your personal data to make sure they have the right person and/or a small fee, and they'll help you recover the money you lost to the first scammer. There is, of course, no restitution. The scammer is merely double-dipping.

What To Do If You Receive a Suspicious Call

What to Do if You Get a Suspicious Call

Now that you know which scams you're most likely to encounter, it's important to know what to do if you think you've been targeted. The scammer could be casting a wide net or targeting you specifically. In either case, the actions you take or don't take could mean the difference between being victimized and avoiding the scam. You might even be able to help authorities nab the criminals responsible for the fraud.

Screen Unfamiliar Calls

Screen Unfamiliar Calls

The single best way to avoid being taken in a phone scam is to never make contact with the scammer in the first place. That means your best bet in most cases is simply not to answer calls with blocked or private numbers or that you otherwise don't recognize. "If you do not recognize the phone number on your caller ID, do not answer the phone," Lavelle says. "Let it go to voicemail or the answering machine. Most telemarketers will hang up and not leave a message. If it's important, the caller will leave a message."

When in Doubt, Hang Up

When in Doubt, Hang Up

If you do answer an unfamiliar call and you quickly wish you hadn't, end the call right away. "If you answer your phone and the caller or a recording requests that you push a button to stop receiving the calls, hang up," Lavelle says. "If you answer your phone and you are asked questions that require you to respond with either a 'yes' or 'no,' hang up. Both are techniques that scammers have been using to identify potential victims. If you answer and there's a pause, that's often an indication of a robocall and you should simply hang up."

Don't Follow Instructions

Don't Follow Instructions

Both human scammers and automated robocall recordings often try to get you to take some sort of action just to see if they've reached a live person. "Never follow the automated voice asking you to press 1," Lavelle says. "Do not push any numbers to reach a live operator. This signifies that the autodialer has reached a live number and this will probably lead to more robocalls."

Register with the Do Not Call Registry

Register With the Do Not Call Registry

Although the Do Not Call Registry isn't always consistent, it's important to register to help eliminate a good portion of unwanted calls. "If you've been on the Do Not Call Registry for a month or longer and still get calls, file a complaint with the FTC," Lavelle says. "It doesn't take long, and sometimes enough complaints can get the policy changed. Report illegal robocalls to the Federal Trade Commission at or call (888) 225-5322."

Block Repeat Offenders

Block Repeat Offenders

If you're getting calls regularly from the same few numbers, consider blocking them. "Most cellphone providers allow you to block an incoming number," Lavelle says. "After the call comes in, follow your provider's instructions for blocking the number from calling you again. You can also seek supplementary, third-party help. "A variety of apps and services, many of them free, make it possible to cut down on unwanted calls on some landline and mobile phones," Lavelle says. "They work by blocking them, alerting you to a possible robocall, or forwarding suspicious calls to voicemail."

Try Services Like Nomorobo

Try Services Such as Nomorobo

One of the most reliable third-party options, according to Lavelle, is a service called Nomorobo. "It's a free service available through most phone service providers and is designed to block robocalls and telemarketers," he says. "While it may not prevent all robocalls from getting through, you are able to identify those calls as your phone will only ring once and the call is then rejected." Lavelle also recommends Truecaller and PrivacyStar, which offer similar functionality.

Set Up the Anonymous Call Rejection Option

Set Up the Anonymous Call Rejection Option

Many scammers, as well as telemarketers who are more annoying than predatory, don't show up on caller ID. Calls from these numbers are the ones you want to eliminate almost entirely, which you can if your phone company offers anonymous call rejection. "Call your phone provider to find out if this option is available for your landline," Lavelle says. "It lets you screen out calls from callers who have blocked their caller ID information, a tactic of telemarketers."

Create A Spending Plan

Stay Informed

As previously stated, phone scams and the preferred methods for dealing with them evolve constantly. The FTC has a wealth of information you can use to stay informed and protect yourself. Visit the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection regularly to stay up to date and to arm yourself with the latest and most accurate information.

Sign the Consumer Union Petition

You're Not Alone

Rest assured, you're not the only one who is angry that these calls are even allowed to make it to your telephone. A Consumer Union petition with nearly 230,000 names was delivered to the Federal Communications Commission in 2019 to demand phone company implementation of technology that stops robocalls at no cost to consumers.  

Related: Identity Theft Horror Stories