If your phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from supposed local numbers, you are not alone. What appear to be legitimate calls from your hometown are actually scammers trying to trick you into picking up and handing over personal information or buying what they are selling.
Spammers and con artists use this so-called "neighbor-spoofing" scam to persuade recipients to answer the phone when they otherwise might ignore the call. Despite the existing protections against these tactics, consumer advocacy groups and government agencies warn that neighbor spoofing and robocall scams are on the rise. But there are easy ways to avoid these scams.
What is neighbor spoofing?
This tactic involves spoofing caller ID to match the first six digits of your phone number — your area code and your local exchange — to make the call look like it is coming from a local business or even a friend or neighbor.
The reasoning goes that if the number appears to be local instead of a long-distance call, people may be more likely to pick up the phone and give scammers the opportunity to take advantage of them.
Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, told Tom's Guide that spoofing caller ID isn't illegal — unless it is done for fraudulent purposes.
"It's not just the caller ID that shows up, but what's said during the call that determines whether there's any kind of violation of the law or not," Grant said. "Obviously, if somebody says that they are someone that they are not for the purposes of tricking you into giving your money or personal information under false pretenses, then that's a problem."
Federal agencies enforce a number of rules designed to stem caller-ID spoofing and unwanted calls, including the Truth in Caller ID Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. There's also a bill pending in Congress called the Spoofing Act of 2017 that would expand prohibitions to international callers and text messages.
What you can do
Although you may not be able to completely stop neighbor spoofing, you can avoid being scammed by perpetrators. Here are six tips to help you identify and deal with spoofed calls.
1. Send unsolicited calls to voicemail
To put it simply, screen your calls. If you receive a call from a number you don't recognize, local or not, let it go to voicemail or send it there. If the call is important, the person on the other end will leave a message. This also gives you the option to return the call at your leisure.
Scammers can also spoof caller ID to look like the calls are coming from a legitimate business or previous contact, which makes them difficult to ignore. But if you aren't expecting a call from your bank or your doctor's office, use voicemail to get more information before returning calls.
If the above tips sound impolite, then consider this: Answering a spoofed call will indicate to scammers that your phone line is active, which means you are more likely to receive additional scam calls.
2. Listen carefully to the caller's pitch
If you do answer the phone, you'll likely be able to determine whether the call is legitimate based on the conversation.
"The fact that it may appear to be a local call is not the most important factor here," Grant said. "It's who the person says they are representing, and what it is that they are asking you for or offering you, that is what you want to be watching for."
Telltale signs of fraud, Grant said, include a caller claiming that she or he is from your bank or your credit-card company (the callers often don't name a specific company) and asking you to confirm sensitive information such as your account number or your Social Security number. Those are details that any company with which you are in a trusted financial relationship should already have.
Another common red flag is a caller claiming that he or she was referred to you by a neighbor who recently purchased a product or service, Grant said.
It may be next to impossible to confirm that the person on the other end of the line is who he or she claims to be. But if the conversation feels wrong, it probably is.
3. Hang up
Once you determine that the caller is trying to sell you something or scam you by collecting personal information, hang up. If it's a robocall, avoid speaking or pressing buttons, even if the recording instructs you to do so in order to stop receiving calls.
According to Ian Barlow, the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call program coordinator, the longer a consumer stays on the line, the more likely he or she is to get called again. There's no need to be polite or to listen to a sales pitch — especially if you know that your number is on the Do Not Call list.
If you are still unsure, but you suspect a caller claiming to represent your insurance company or lender is actually trying to con you, hang up and call back the known number for that business to verify the request for information.
4. Register for the National Do Not Call Registry
The FTC's National Do Not Call Registry is an opt-in service that allows consumers to place their home and mobile phone numbers on a list not to receive telemarketing calls.
"While putting your number on the Do Not Call list does not necessarily prevent telemarketers, scammers and robocallers from reaching you," Barlow said, "it does let you know that these callers are likely violating the law and are not people with whom you should do business."
5. Report fraudulent and nuisance callers
Reporting spoofed or scam calls may feel like screaming into the void, but the government agencies that collect these reports are more likely to take action if they see hundreds or thousands of complaints about the same offender.
You can report unwanted calls and scammers via the FTC's Complaint Assistant and Do Not Call Registry, the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Complaint Center and the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker.
6. Download a call-blocking app
Most mobile phones have built-in call-blocking options, but these generally block single numbers on individual devices. Scammers and robocallers use rotating numbers, so built-in blocking is unlikely to prevent future spoofed calls.
There are additional resources offered by phone companies for both wireless numbers and landlines, as well as third-party apps, that go beyond these basic features.
For example, call-blocking apps have options to block individual numbers, all calls from specific area codes, or those not in your contacts, and some even use crowdsourced information to mass-block known telemarketing or robocall numbers.
Neighbor spoofing, while annoying, probably won't cause you significant harm if you never pick up the phone, but scammers are betting that you'll fall for it at least once.