Sick of scams? Stop answering your phone.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, people lost $851 million to phone scams in 2023. After email, phone scams are the most common fraud method reported to the FTC. (Getty Images)

The first rule of avoiding scam calls is to never answer unknown numbers, and even some known ones.

Curious? Bored? Worried it’s an emergency? Wait the extra minute it takes for the call to go to voice mail, then decide if it’s legitimate.

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Unfortunately, every year hundreds of thousands of people in the United States either ignore that golden rule or are tricked into answering. According to the Federal Trade Commission, people lost $851 million to phone scams in 2023. After email, phone scams are the most common fraud method reported to the FTC.

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Anatomy of a scam call

I’ve been breaking the rule myself recently, out of professional curiosity and, yes, boredom. The most recent was the kind of common scam that could give anyone pause. The caller claimed to be from a generic-sounding company that wanted to send me an urgent document. I broke down some of their techniques:

-- They used a number that was not flagged as a scam or telemarketer by the built-in features on my phone or from my carrier. It had a United States area code and didn’t pop up on a Google search.

-- They provided a different phone number and reference number to call them back. This is a gambit to gain trust and delays them asking for anything that would raise red flags.

-- They had enough personal information about my family to dismiss any concerns of being targeted at random. Thanks to constant hacks and breaches, most people have ample personal data that can be bought by scammers.

-- The caller said they were calling about a legal complaint, in an attempt to trigger panic in me. The more questions I asked, the more agitated the caller became, even sprinkling in veiled threats.

Eventually, I annoyed the man so much that he hung up on me (not a first). Here’s what we can all learn to avoid losing money and time to phone scams.

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Learn to not answer your phone

Resist the urge to pick up that call unless is it an individual or small business you know personally and is saved in your contacts. This applies to unknown numbers, local numbers, and recognizable large companies or organizations.

“The deck is so stacked against you as a consumer when you’re responding to these types of phone calls,” said Michael Jabbara, Visa’s senior vice president of global fraud services. “I wouldn’t even put myself in that position, period.”

Your first defense is your phone’s contacts app. Since you should only answer calls from people and businesses you deal with regularly, make sure you save them in your phone’s built-in contact app. Next, turn on the setting that sends all other calls straight to voice mail.

On an iPhone, go to Settings → Phone → Silence Unknown Callers. On an Android device, go to the Phone app → menu button → Settings. Most phones will have options for blocking numbers and caller ID/spam protection here.

“But my caller ID says it’s Chase Bank. Clearly, I need to answer,” you might say.

No, you still should not answer. Scammers have successfully compromised caller ID, making it unreliable. They use a technology called spoofing, which makes calls appear to come from real companies, your area code and even specific people you know. In some cases, they can mimic the numbers of people you know or your own number.

Scammers are testing AI tools to clone voices, but experts say these are still just a small amount of scams. If you’re concerned, come up with a password with family members that can be used to confirm their identity.

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So you’ve answered the phone anyway …

Well, I tried. Let’s say you’ve answered the phone despite the warnings. Now what do you do?

Most people think they’re smart enough to outwit the scammer, but the criminals on the other end of the line are often counting on that.

“Don’t overestimate your ability to outsmart the fraudsters. This is their job. They make a living doing this - they’re highly motivated to be good at this job,” Jabbara said.

Listen for asks: If you haven’t already, memorize the red flags. If they ask for money, personal information or log-in information, it’s a scam.

Ask your own questions: You can ask questions to try to confirm their legitimacy. If they claim to be from a company you haven’t heard of, ask for the location and street address. Keep in mind that they can easily lie. They’re scammers, there is no oath or law requiring them to answer you truthfully.

Give them nothing: Even if your account was hacked and someone purchased $90,000 in sneakers, your credit card will not ask you to confirm your password, address or any other sensitive information.

Say you’ll contact them separately: Tell the caller you’ll look into it and contact them in your own way. If they need to give you information, tell them to mail it, but do not provide an address. A real organization, like a debt collector, will already have it, said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP. If they push back, end the call.

“Most legitimate businesses that do need you will give you the safe way to get the information that you need,” Nofziger said.

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Hang up now

As soon as you have the tiniest of doubts or concerns about a call, end it. Do not worry about being polite or missing out on something important. Anything legitimate - a stolen credit card, package delivery, outstanding debt - can be confirmed by contacting companies directly.

“Don’t trust and then verify. Verify and then trust,” Nofziger said.

If the caller said they were from a big company or bank, use trusted channels that you can directly access yourself, Jabbara said. If someone claims to be Visa, for example, take your card out of your wallet and call the number on back. You can also open the mobile app on your phone and look for alerts or contact information there.

Avoid Googling a company to find the customer service number, as scams can use SEO to get fake numbers high in the results and even convincing fake webpages.

Don’t just look out for yourself, talk to other people in your life who may be victimized by a scam. Offer to help them investigate or turn on settings that minimize risk.

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