Ten Common and Dangerous Phone Scams You Should Know About

Unwanted phone calls are not only a nuisance, they can also be dangerous — and they can be avoided.

While scammers are resorting to more devious tricks, phone scams continue to pose risks to the unwary. Almost 60 million Americans reported being scammed in 2021, losing an average of $502 each for a total of $29 billion.

Fraudulent schemers not only seek money, but want access to victims' information.

Scammers can be friendly or threatening, but are always out to cause harm.

Phone scams
While scammers are resorting to more devious tricks, phone scams continue to pose risks to the unwary. Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

10 common phone scams to be aware of:

1. Scammers sometimes offer free gifts as rewards to consumers that actually are efforts to take your money and information. Vacations and travel are among the most common offerings by scammers seeking your address, credit card number, credit information, while asking for a shipping and handling fee or similar fee to send the gift.

2. 'You've won the lottery' scams often come from outside the United States, thus making law enforcement's job all the harder. Scammers ask their victims to pay a fee, buy tickets, and/or provide personal information. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that Americans lose up to $120 million to the schemes.

3. 'I'm calling from the IRS' scams are particularly common before April 15, when Americans file their income tax statements or near the end of the fiscal year. Typically, scammers claim that the victim owes taxes or has another problem. They mimic caller IDs, and may even have acquired victims' social security numbers. But the IRS will never phone taxpayers nor request an immediate wire transfer of money. IRS contacts taxpayers by mail.

4. 'I'm calling from the bank' schemers contact victims about alleged problems with a bank account or funds, sometimes originating as text messages asking for contact via telephone. The scam is looking for personal information, including bank account and credit card information, to take your money.

5. Charity scams can happen at any time, but are frequent after disasters when generous people want to help others; the funds wind up in the scammers' pockets. While some charities do accept donations via telephone, when in doubt, call them back on a verified line to make a donation.

6. Debt scammers use fear to trick victims into forking over money. Sometimes posing as collection agencies, they urgently request payment of a supposed debt and even threaten legal action should victims fail to pay. They may also offer to write off supposed debt, which does not exist, in exchange for a smaller payment. In this case, demand the name, address, and phone number of the caller, as well as the exact amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, and a validation notice that collection agencies are legally required to provide. If the caller cannot provide this, it's a scam.

7. In family emergency schemes, scammers try to impersonate family members requesting money, claiming poverty or legal trouble. Seniors should be aware that a common scam is pushed by scammers claiming to be a grandchild. In these cases, disconnect and call the real relative, who will probably know nothing about the claim.

8. In jury duty scams, schemers exploit fears of legal consequences for failing to heed a court summons. In these scams, scammers claim to be calling to ascertain your eligibility for jury duty. Usually, they want your social security number or they demand immediate payment of a fine for supposed failure to show up for jury duty while threatening jail time. Courts and jury commissions will not contact you by telephone to demand immediate payments.

Money one-hundred-dollar bills
Almost 60 million Americans reported being scammed in 2021, losing an average of $502 each for a total of $29 billion. John Guccione/Pexels

9. Small businesses, or sometimes individuals, are often targeted by utility scams when schemers claim to be calling from an energy company to demand payment of a supposed outstanding bill in order to avoid shut-off. Utility bills normally are not paid over the phone, and utilities offer videos on their websites about making a secure payment.

10. In recovery scams, victims are called by unknown parties claiming to have recovered stolen funds. The scammers ask for personal information and/or payment of a small fee for recovery of the funds. Lists of scam victims are valuable to criminals, who sell and trade the lists to other scammers. Be careful if you are a scam victim.

Other schemes include offers of business coaching, investment opportunities, student debt forgiveness, extended car warranties, and "free" trials of products that wind up as monthly payments.

Here are things to watch out for:

Be wary if any caller asks for passwords. Policies are in place at reputable organizations which never ask for passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs) over the phone. Instead, they will provide links at websites where consumers can enter the information.

Scammers don't answer questions while reputable organizations will provide information and proof, and allow speaking with supervisors.

Scammers use recording technology to record victims saying "yes" when the scammers ask "Can you hear me?" They use the recording as proof of victims' agreement to a purchase, for example. Avoid saying "yes."

Scammers threaten account disruption or legal action, while legitimate callers rarely do so.

If callers discourage calling them back on an official number, they are probably illegitimate.

Grandparent on phone
Older people can fall victim to family emergency schemes in which scammers try to impersonate family members requesting money, claiming poverty or legal trouble. Mart Production/Pexels

How to avoid telephone scams:

To reduce the chances of being scammed, minimize your reliance on phones. If family members, friends, and frequently consulted organizations contact you through other platforms, you will thus be likely to identify phone scams.

Block unwanted calls.

Screen calls that you do not recognize, let them go to voicemail. Legitimate calls will probably leave a voice message, but scammers will probably hang up.

When receiving a call from an unfamiliar number, Google the caller's number to reveal where it came from. Many websites list scammers' numbers.

If your cell phone plan includes scam filters, enabling it will reduce exposure to scams.

When in doubt, hang up. Legitimate callers will contact you again or another way, thus providing an opportunity to verify their identity before contacting them again.

Never follow instructions unknown callers give before verifying their legitimacy. Scammers want your information and/or money.

If in doubt about a caller, note the caller's name, organization, and other information (e.g. date and time), which can be useful in investigating the call.

Finally, to reduce the number of unwanted calls, register your phone number with the FTC's National Do Not Call Registry. You may register online at donotcall.gov or by calling 1-888-382-1222 (TTY: 1-866-290-4236).

If you still receive telemarketing calls after registration, they are probably scams.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.