In the not-so-distant days when every apartment and home had a landline, scam calls seemed par for the course. Dealing with them was annoying, but standardized: Pick up the phone, hear an automated message or listen to enough of a real person's pitch to realize it's fake, and politely end the call. (Or, more often, hang up without a word.)
When I got my first cellphone, I was pleasantly to surprised to find that I rarely received a call I didn't want. Sure, there have been the occasional campaigning calls or telemarketers over the years, but these have been the exception, not the rule.
Recently, that has begun to change. It seems like every day brings a random call from my home area code with an automated message or no response on the other end. My iPhone hardly the only victim. A recent study from mobile solution company First Orion found that the number of people who receive telemarketing and scam calls has tripled and quadrupled over the past two years, compared to when the same study was conducted four years ago. In the survey of over 1,000 cell phone users, 60% said they have received a scam call within the past month alone.
Unfortunately, landlines, or rather, the decline of people using landlines, may be partly to blame. "Nuisance and scam callers continue to accelerate their efforts to contact people on their mobile numbers, as more and more consumers ignore unknown landline calls," Jonathan Sasse, the CMO at First Orion, says.
Plus, while many companies are well versed in online scams and have cracked down on onscreen pop-ups, our smartphones are a relatively weak link in comparison. "When one way gets blocked the bad guys look to do it another way," Kevin Haley, a security expert at Norton Symantec says. Haley adds that while fear of viruses and warnings about pop-ups have taught many people to be skeptical of phishing on laptops, we haven't developed the same filter when it comes to our phones.
Many phone carriers offer free spam controls for blocking unwanted numbers. However, as is the case with Verizon's service, there's an expiration on blocks and you need to know the number you want to block. Scammers can easily change the number they're calling from, so this isn't a foolproof method.
You can also try downloading an app such as Call Blocker, PrivacyStar, or Truecaller, which uses community feedback to compile a database of spam and telemarketer numbers. However, don't download these without reading the small print. The FTC warns that some apps may require access to your contact list.
For those calls that do get through, there are a couple of easy ways to identify a scam. If the caller asks you to send money for something, question the way they want you to send it. "No legitimate business will use iTunes gift cards or Bitcoin as a form of currency," Haley says. The FTC also advises listening for buzzwords such as "free bonus" or "specially selected."
Lastly, avoid giving out your cellphone number online when you can. For those instances when you are required to give one, you can use a secondary phone number (you an easily get one through Google Voice) instead of your primary number.
As appealing as that call about a free cruise to Fiji might be, it's probably better to the unwanted take preventative steps so you don't get tempted by a scam. If you're the type who gets FOMO during scam calls, try entering a legitimate contest on your own initiative.