When a Texas woman answered her phone, she never expected to be threatened with criminal charges over an unpaid debt to the payment app Cashnet. But the caller (who claimed to be an attorney), had her full name, address, Social Security number (SSN), and bank account number — convincing her that it was a legitimate threat.
Immediately after complying with the caller’s demand for $1,000 to drop the charges, the victim contacted Cashnet directly. They explained that no such debt existed. It was all a scam [*].
Phone scams like this — also known as voice phishing or “vishing” — are far from uncommon. By some accounts, Americans receive an average of 31 scam calls every month, with victims losing $39.5 billion to phone fraudsters last year alone [*].
Identifying a scammer on the phone isn’t easy, and trying to make this determination can feel awkward and overwhelming. But there are telltale signs to keep in mind if you want to stay safe.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to detect the red flags of a vishing attack before things go too far.
Example: A Credit Card Scam Call That Almost Worked
During a scam call, fraudsters impersonate trusted or authoritative figures and attempt to trick victims into paying money or revealing sensitive information.
Unlike scam text messages or emails, there aren’t always simple warning signs you can look out for (such as suspicious links, poor spelling and grammar, or a fraudulent email address or phone number). Instead, phone scammers rely on your trusting or polite nature to get you to comply.
Here’s an example: According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), credit card fraud is a leading cause of identity theft [*]. And as it turns out, fraudsters often use phone calls for credit card scams.
Here’s an example of a credit card scam call that you might get or find in your voicemail inbox:
What key aspects of this message point to a scam?
Here are the main giveaways to look out for:
The message is pre-recorded (this type of message is also known as a robocall).
It offers a deal that’s too good to be true. Scammers call targets and surprise them with an urgent message, offer, or threat.
It creates a sense of urgency by stating that “the offer is only available for three business days.”
It tries to establish trust by claiming to be from the “underwriting department.”
It attempts to hide the fact that it’s a scam by stating that “this is the only notice you’ll receive.”
It doesn’t include any personal details about you.
Not all phone scams look the same. But with enough information, you’ll learn to notice when a call doesn’t sound right.
✅ Take action: If scammers have your phone number, your bank account and identity could be at risk. Try Aura’s identity theft protection free for 14 days to secure your identity against scammers.
How To Identify a Scammer on the Phone: 10 Warning Signs
One reason why vishing calls have become so successful in recent years is that con artists are updating their skills.
The average person might expect scam calls to be painfully obvious. So when the voice over the phone sounds credible, and the message uses the same language you’d hear from a legitimate source, it can catch you completely off guard.
While some phone scams are still fairly easy to recognize, others require more careful attention. Here are the main warning signs to look out for:
You receive an unsolicited phone call. Beware of calls from people claiming to represent government agencies or major corporations. Scammers pose as people with authority as an intimidation tactic. Be especially cautious about callers claiming to be from the IRS, DMV, FBI, or large companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or Netflix.
You’re offered a too-good-to-be-true deal or giveaway. Don’t believe anyone who says you’ve been “specially selected” for a prize. If you didn’t enter a giveaway or request a deal, it’s most likely a scam.
There’s a noticeable pause when you pick up before anyone answers. This is the scammer’s call technology connecting you to them when you answer.
The call starts off as a robocall. There are federal laws in place that prohibit most forms of robocalls [*]. If you didn’t request or give permission to receive this kind of marketing call, it’s a scam.
The caller claims you have unpaid debts and threatens you with fines or jail time. This is a classic intimidation tactic. When in doubt, hang up and contact the company or agency directly to see if the threats are credible.
The caller uses a generic greeting and doesn’t know anything about you. Someone requesting money or personal information will always know whom they’re calling.
The caller requests sensitive information, such as your SSN or credit card number. There’s never a good reason to give out this information over the phone.
You’re asked to provide personal information that the caller should already have. For example, a representative from Medicare should not be asking for your Medicare number. Don’t be fooled by someone asking you to “verify” your information. Remember, they called you.
You’re told that your device has been infected with malware or viruses. No one can know this without direct access to your device. If you’re told this during a phone call, never install remote access softwaresuch as AnyDesk or TeamViewer.
The caller claims that you will be charged for a subscription, loan, or service. This is another classic scam tactic to threaten you into giving them money or sensitive information. If you think the call may be credible, hang up and contact the company directly to ask about the charge.
Pro tip: Remove your phone number from data broker lists and reduce the amount of spam and scam calls you receive. Aura can automatically monitor data broker lists for your details and send removal requests on your behalf.
What Should You Do If a Scammer Calls You?
Here’s the good news — you’re in no immediate danger if you pick up a call and get connected to a scammer. Simply hang up and block the phone number.
Scammers are constantly changing their tactics to trick you over the phone. But if you pick up the phone and hear any of these common phone scams, hang up immediately.
1. Debt reduction, special credit card rates, and other “limited time” offers
In this type of scam, the caller reaches out with a tempting offer that will save you money or upgrade your life in some way.
News that you qualify for lower interest rates or debt reduction is likely to grab your attention. But as soon as you take the bait, phone scammers will begin asking for personal details like your bank account number and Social Security number. That’s your signal to drop the call.
How to tell it’s a scammer on the phone
If the caller congratulates you for winning a prize, hang up the phone — especially if you haven’t entered any giveaways or sweepstakes lately.
If an unsolicited caller starts asking for personal information, it’s a scam.
Any indication that the caller is rushing your decision to accept what they’re offering is an immediate red flag.
2. Scammers claiming to be tech support representatives
Many successful vishing scams use social engineering strategies to manipulate their targets. For example, in tech support scams, fraudsters pose as technical support representatives to convince victims that something is wrong with their device.
In an effort to “solve” the issue, they’ll ask you to download software that gives them complete control over your computer — leaving them free to steal your sensitive data, break into your bank accounts, or worse.
How to tell it’s a scammer on the phone:
You receive an unsolicited call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft, Apple, Geek Squad, or some other tech support service. They tell you that harmful malware or viruses have infected your device.
The caller asks you to grant them remote access to your device so that they can “fix” the problem. You should never share control of your computer with anyone you don’t personally know or trust.
They request payment for services rendered, either through credit or debit card details, or via nontraditional payment methods such as wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
The phony tech support agent calls you. Real tech support agents never make contact independently. That role belongs to the customer.
4. Fake fraud alerts claiming to be from your bank
If there’s any notification that inspires immediate action, it’s a fraud alert. A call from your bank claiming suspicious activity or massive withdrawals from your account is just the kind of urgent, panic-inducing situation that scammers want to create.
How to tell it’s a scammer on the phone:
The agent tries to get you to move funds from one account to another over the phone.
The caller puts pressure on you to act immediately or to use third-party payment apps such as Zelle or Paypal to help resolve the issue.
You’re asked to share your bank account authorization code, PIN, or other sensitive financial information.
In the news: When Tennessee resident and salon owner Kizzy Broaden questioned a supposed fraud alert, the scammer provided a few pieces of information about her, including the last four digits of her bank account number [*].
After giving up her personal information to the caller, both her personal and business bank accounts were emptied.
✅ Take action: If you accidentally give scammers your personal data, they could take out loans in your name or empty your bank account. Try an identity theft protection service to monitor your finances and alert you to fraud.
5. Claims that you missed jury duty and there’s a warrant out for your arrest
Some fraudsters put as much pressure on their targets as possible by telling them that they’re in trouble with the law. Whether it’s due to missed jury duty or late loan payments, this emergency situation is fabricated to frighten targets into doing whatever it takes, as quickly as they can, in order to make the threat go away.
Scammers offer solutions that involve “confirming” the victim’s personal information, paying a hefty fine to stay out of jail, or both.
How to tell it’s a scammer on the phone:
The caller issues ultimatums and threats of imprisonment if you don’t comply with their demands immediately.
They make the situation seem even more urgent by stating that the call is your “final warning,” or your “last chance” to clear your name before facing life-altering consequences.
You haven’t received a certified notice by mail or an in-person visit from law enforcement to inform you of legal action or an arrest warrant.
If you’ve recently received an automated phone message about your car’s extended warranty, you’re in good company. This robocall scam is one of the most common in the United States right now.
Although robocalls may yield a lower overall success rate, they present advantages for scammers. They’re cheap to create, and they allow fraudsters to reach the most people with the least effort.
Even if just a small percentage of targets take the bait, the payoff is worth the investment. Those who call back after hearing the voicemail will speak directly to a scammer who will be even more convincing than the initial robocall.
How to tell it’s a scammer on the phone:
You receive a robocall either offering a better deal on your auto warranty or warning that your warranty or auto insurance is about to expire.
The call is rushed and vague, and it leaves out details about the insurance plan or warranty policy.
The message is an urgent “last chance” warning, prompting you to take action before it’s too late.
Did You Give Information or Money to a Phone Scam? Do This!
When your personal information falls into the wrong hands, it’s time to focus your attention on damage control. What steps can you take to minimize the harm that a fraudster can do with your sensitive data?
Here are the most important bases to cover:
Document the incident. Collect screenshots of texts or voicemails that you received, along with fraudulent charges, the phone number the scammer used, and any other information that you remember.
Contact your financial institution(s) and notify them of potential fraud. Your debit or credit card company will check your statement for suspicious activity and cancel your cards immediately.
Freeze your credit. Contact the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax), and request a credit freeze so that the scammer will be blocked from opening new accounts in your name. You can also lock your Experian credit file with a single tap by using the Aura app.
Check your credit report. You’re entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the three main credit bureaus. Download yours at AnnualCreditReport.com.
File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov. This is an essential step if you need to dispute any fraudulent charges or prove that you were the victim of identity theft.
Report the incident to your local law enforcement agency.
Strengthen your digital security. Update all of your passwords to ones that are secure and unique (Aura’s password manager helps you create and store secure passwords for all of your accounts so that you don’t have to worry about remembering them). Whenever possible, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on your accounts.
Consider signing up for an identity theft protection service. Aura’s top-rated identity theft protection monitors all of your most sensitive personal information, online accounts, and finances for signs of fraud. If a scammer tries to access your accounts or data, Aura can help you take action before it’s too late. Try Aura’s 14-day free trialfor immediate protection while you’re most vulnerable.
Even if you feel well-equipped to recognize spam calls on your own, the goal is to cut off scammers’ access to you at the earliest possible opportunity. Minimizing the number of unwanted calls you get means lowering your risk of becoming the next victim of a costly scam.
First, ask your cell phone network provider about call-blocking features for spam calls. Registering your phone number on the FTC’s Do Not Call registry is also highly recommended.
If a recorded spam message does get through, don’t respond to any questions or prompts (i.e., “if you’d like to stop receiving calls from this number, press 1”). These prompts are designed to put a target on your back for future scam attempts. Simply hang up and don’t engage.
And, of course, don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Remember that scammers often manipulate the information you see about the call before you decide whether to pick up. They can spoof the area code, or even the text of the caller ID, and make the call look like it’s coming from your area or from a trusted institution.
After hanging up, don’t forget to navigate to “recent calls” on your phone and select the “block” or “report spam” option. You can also report scam calls on DoNotCall.gov.
Don’t Let Sleazy Phone Scammers Get the Better of You
Shielding yourself from phone scams is no longer as simple as ignoring unknown numbers and hanging up on telemarketers. Today’s scammers know exactly how to manipulate you into giving up personal information before you have time to suspect foul play.
Hang up on suspicious calls and safeguard your sensitive data before it’s too late. Sign up for Aura’s comprehensive, all-in-one, easy-to-use digital protection solution today.