Robocall scams: What are they and what can you do about them?

March 13, 2020
There are few things more annoying than automated phone calls - especially when they're trying to scam you. Unfortunately, robocalls seem to be an everyday occurance and if you're not careful, they can be dangerous. While the FTC and the FCC do their best to battle these bots, it often rests on our shoulders to protect our privacy. But what are robocall scams exactly and more importantly, what can you do about them? We'll tell you everything you need to know!

A person avoiding a robocall scam from an unknown number.

What are robocalls?

Technically, a robocall is any automated call sent out en masse. This means that not every automated call you receive is necessarily a scam, and that's why it can be so difficult to tell the difference.

In a sense, robocall scams are a type of phishing; instead of using text messages or emails as their vehicle of deceit, they use regular phone calls. Scammers reach out to individuals and try to get them to perform some action. Usually, this means giving out personal details or account information which is later used for identity theft and fraud. However, they can also try to get you to send money or even visit websites that could be harmful to your computer.

What types of robocall scams are there?

There are a wide variety of robocall scams circulating the cell towers and phone lines these days, but most of them are similar in that they are trying to sound authentic. Some prey on fear of financial or legal trouble and some take the opposite approach by trying to entice you with offers or winnings. 

The execution of these scams can vary, but often it involves an automated call which tries to connect you to a live person. This person is meant to make the call seem legitimate, but is really an essential piece in the scam.

Tech support. In these calls, the scammer will pretend to be tech support, like Apple or Microsoft. They'll usually claim that there is something wrong with your computer or your account, and then offer to "fix it" for you. They may try to get you to install software to do this, which won't fix your computer, but rather infect it. 

Stolen identity. Sometimes, you'll receive an urgent call claiming that your identity has been stolen. Of course, they then ask you for personal information to "verify" you're who you say you are. In reality, they're just stealing your identity. 

Financial problems. Scammers often claim to represent large banks or credit card companies. They'll claim that they've detected irregular activity on your account or that your card has been stolen. These can be especially tricky because banks often do call to alert you of fraud. However, unlike the robocall scams, real banks will never ask you for personal details or credit card numbers.

You owe money. This is an incredibly common tactic used by robocall scammers. They claim to be from banks, loan collecting services, or even the IRS. They tell you that you have outstanding debt and attempt to get your personal information, or even set up some sort of transfer. 

Charity scams. Unfortunately, scammers will often exploit the good nature of people. They'll pretend to represent some charity and try to set up some sort of money transfer. While this certainly can happen year round, it is especially common during the holiday months.

Authoritative institutions.  Occasionally, they'll try to trick you into thinking you're in some kind of legal trouble and pretend to be from the IRS, Social Security, or FBI. They'll threaten legal action if you don't follow instructions, which usually involve giving up your personal information.

Emergencies. These can be the most difficult scams to deal with and are especially devious. Basically, the call says that a relative of yours is in some sort of trouble, like being thrown in jail, and ask you to transfer money for bail or court fees.

Are robocalls legal?

According to the FCC, a company may only call you with a recorded message if they have your permission to do so. In order to get your permission, "the company has to be clear it's asking to call you with robocalls, and it can't make you agree to the calls to get a product or service." You must also always have the ability to withdraw your consent.

However, there are a few exceptions where the law allows organizations to robocall you without you expressed permission. In other words, while they can certainly be annoying, not all robocalls are illegal. According to the FCC, there are a number of scenarios where certain organizations are allowed to call you:
  • Political calls
  • Purely informational (in other words, they're not asking for anything from you)
  • Debt collection
  • Health care providers (e.g. pharmacies)
  • Messages from charities

How can I protect myself from robocall scams?

Caller ID screening. Using caller ID to screen calls can be a helpful tactic for avoiding robocall and other phone related scams. However, with the advent of VoIP calls (internet phones) it can be easy for a scammer to hide or disguise their phone number. This is what is known as "spoofing." If you've ever had a call from a phone number that has the same six digits as your number (or someone you know's phone number), you've probably seen spoofing first hand. Scammers do this to try and trick people into thinking the call is coming from a legitimate source. While it may sound like this wouldn't fool you, remember: they wouldn't do it if it didn't fool some people. 

Never give out personal information. This should be second nature to you. While many customer service lines will ask for information to verify your account, they will never do this on outgoing calls. No matter who the person on the other end of the phone claims to be, never give out passwords, account numbers, names, addresses, or any similar information. 

Call the organization directly. If someone claims to be a representative of an agency or a company, simply hang up and call them directly. While this might seem inconvenient, it's the only way to truly ensure that the person on the other end of the phone is who they say they are. 

Watch out for a sense of urgency. Be cautious of any call that has a sense of urgency to it. Scammers know that when you're rushing, you may be more likely to make a mistake.   

Call blocking. Robocalls can become incredibly frustrating. Sometimes, you'll receive up to five a day, or maybe even more. Fortunately, there are a number of apps that can help you block numbers. Some smartphone operating systems even have this functionality built in. Consider reaching out to your service provider to see what solutions they may offer. Finally, you can go to the Federal Trade Commission's website and place your number on the National Do Not Call Registry

Hang up and report the call. If you suspect that a call is a scam, hang up and report them, either to the Federal Trade Comission (FTC) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.