Writer: Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith, MSU Extension Service
RAYMOND, Miss. -- Scams come in a variety of disguises, and some of them are very convincing.
It can be especially hard to ignore phone calls from what appears to be a legitimate community business, organization or individual. But those calls could be coming from scammers anywhere in the world.
Telemarketers out to defraud customers use caller ID spoofing to intentionally hide their identity by falsifying the information transmitted to someone’s caller ID.
“Telemarketers know that people are more likely to pick up the phone if they recognize the number,” said Stacy Harrell, No Call Administrator for the Mississippi Public Service Commission in the central district. “Spoofed numbers will have an area code and prefix -- the first six numbers -- that are the same as or similar to the phone number of the person being called.”
Caller ID spoofing is legal and useful in some instances, such as when a doctor uses a cell phone to call patients but displays the office number on the patients’ caller IDs. But the practice is illegal when telemarketers use it to trick consumers into giving out their personal information so it can be used or sold for fraudulent purposes.
The Federal Communications Commission also prohibits the practice when it is used to cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value.
Even if telemarketers are unable to trick consumers into answering their phones or falling for their scams, they still make money.
“They get paid based on the number of calls they make per day,” said Harrell. “All they have to do is place the call. They don’t have to make a sale or talk to anyone.
“It sounds crazy. But if you make a million calls a day -- even if you only make pennies on the dollar -- that’s a lot of money. It’s very profitable, and that’s why it continues,” she said.
However, Harrell said scam calls are decreasing because of the Public Service Commission’s efforts in fining companies that violate the no-call law.
“It has gotten better,” she said. “I can tell by the fewer number of calls I get on my phone. I used to get multiple calls a day, and now I get maybe one or two a week.”
Although it is impossible for authorities to track down telemarketers who are spoofing legitimate numbers, consumers can take steps to protect themselves from these telemarketers.
Harrell said one of the best methods to reduce these calls and avoid spoofing scams on cell phones is to use call blocking tools.
Many cellular service providers offer call blocking tools. Consumers can also download apps that filter out unwanted calls. For more information, about these tools, visit the Federal Communications Commission website at https://bit.ly/393KgJr.
“This is a lot easier on cell phones,” she said. “The technology just isn’t available for landline phones.”
The SHAKEN/STIR caller ID authentication system is also stopping many unwanted calls from being completed. These acronyms stand for Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information using toKENs and the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited standards. The system allows a phone number to be verified by both the carrier from which the call is placed and the carrier receiving the call. Harrell explained it in terms of website security.
“It’s similar to when you are on a website and can check to see if the site is secure by looking for the locked padlock that appears before the website address,” she said.
All large voice service providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, were required to implement the SHAKEN/STIR caller ID authentication system in their Internet Protocol -- or IP -- networks and take reasonable measures to implement a caller ID authentication solution for non-IP networks by June 30, 2021. Providers with 100,000 or fewer voice subscriber lines, such as C Spire, have until June 30, 2023, to implement SHAKEN/STIR.
For people who suspect their number has been spoofed, the FCC recommends they take these steps:
- Do not answer unknown numbers.
- If people answer the phone, explain that the number has been spoofed and that no calls have been made from that phone.
- Edit the voicemail message to indicate the number has been spoofed.
Jamie Varner, an Extension specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service Center for Technology Outreach, said the best policy is to ignore unknown numbers when possible.
“For some people, not answering the phone is not an option, even if they don’t recognize the number,” Varner said. “If possible, let the call go to voicemail. But if you do answer the phone, be cautious of the information the caller is asking for. For instance, if they need personal information or if they are pushy or demanding, simply hang up. Always be sure the caller is legitimate.”
The FCC provides these additional tips for consumers when answering unknown numbers:
- Hang up immediately and do not engage with the caller or recording, especially if instructed to press a button. Scammers may continue to call if this action is taken.
- Do not respond to any questions, especially “yes” or “no” questions.
- Never give out personal information, including account numbers, social security numbers, passwords, mother’s maiden names and other identifying information, to unwanted or suspicious callers.
- Hang up immediately if a caller claims to be from a legitimate business or organization and requests some action be taken, such as sending money or changing passwords. Call the number on an account statement or the organization’s website to verify the request is legitimate.
- Set up a password on voicemail accounts. Voicemail accounts that allow access from that account’s assigned number are vulnerable if that number has been spoofed by a telemarketer running a scam.