Each year, scammers steal $3 billion from seniors.
And one of the easiest ways fraudsters steal from folks is over the phone.
We've seen a rise in different types of unwanted phone calls, including harmful scam calls. And if you think your cellphone is safe, it isn't. In fact, last year Americans received 30.5 billion robocalls.
About half of these automated calls are legitimate. They could be political parties calling with information about a candidate, charity groups asking for donations, or even your pharmacy reminding you to pick up your medication.
But the rest are often scammers. They use robocalls to reach people... and if they get a response instead of an immediate disconnection, they will try to scam you into giving away information like your credit-card number, address, bank info, Social Security number, and more.
The elderly are the most at risk, but anyone can fall prey to these schemes.
We've heard from plenty of readers that simply putting yourself on the "Do Not Call" list is ineffective. But it is the first step anyone should take.
Also report scammers directly to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Call the agency at 1-877-FTC-HELP or go to ftc.gov/complaint. If the same person calls repeatedly to harass you, report them to the local police as well.
We advise investing in a good caller ID program. Many phones come with these features now, but if you have a landline without a caller ID, you can buy a simple one for about $13 on Amazon.
Keep in mind these rules, too:
1. Don't answer numbers you don't know. If the number comes up without a name you recognize, let it go to voicemail. If it's important, the caller will leave you a message. Many cellphones also allow you to block certain numbers, and if you have some on your landline that call often, contact your service provider and ask about blocking them.
2. Search those unknown numbers. Sometimes a quick online search will help you figure out who called you. This is useful if you deal with a legitimate company that uses a few different lines. For example, my researcher got a call from the office of her alarm company and didn't recognize it. She had only saved the alert number instead, which came from a different line. Other times, your search will link that unknown number to a string of scam calls.
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3. Don't answer a call from your own number. Scammers are able to call using software that switches their real phone number with another one. They may use your own number or one with the same area code as you so that you'll think it's a neighbor and pick up.
4. Try an add-on service. We've written before about a service called Nomorobo. It automatically disconnects automated sales calls. It works on some landlines for free, and you can also pay for the service on your cellphone.
Another good service is for cellphones. My researcher recently tried AT&T's free service, Call Protect. She's gotten 15 flagged calls so far – that means the phone still rings, but there's a warning on the screen that it could be a telemarketer. She appreciates that the phone screen flashes red, so it's clearly questionable. In addition, the app blocked 21 calls from a known scammer.
Perhaps the best feature is the crowd-sourcing reporting. You can report scam calls and add to the database. The more negative reports a number gets, the higher the threat warning. She received a call a few days ago from a "Potential Fraud" number with 17 reports against it. It went to auto-block, so her phone never even rang.
Call Protect is only available for AT&T subscribers, but T-Mobile also offers a free service. Verizon and Sprint both have paid versions. Find out which apps are available for your carrier right here.
5. Call back to the real customer service department. If you get a call from someone posing as your cable provider or Amazon, hang up and find that company's customer service information. Call them and ask if they contacted you. If they didn't, they'll want to know that scammers are posing as their employees.
6. Try a call blocker. If you're getting a lot of calls on your landline, try an inbound call blocker. You can find them online for about $80 (like this one). They block pre-listed calls automatically and allow you to add new ones to your block list.
Although we've heard some folks using a whistle over the phone to deter scammers from calling back, we don't advise it. There's a chance you may damage the hearing of the person on the other end. It's easier simply to hang up and block calls as you can.
Using these six steps will save you time and frustration. If there's a tip we missed, we'd love to see it. Please shoot it over to us at [email protected].
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 31, 2018