Phone and Texting Scams Are on the Rise — Here’s How to Shield Yourself

phone with a fish hook on orange background

Illustration by Giovanna Pineda/KCM

Plus, the most common scams to be aware of.

Last year alone, 59.4 million Americans became a victim of a phone scam. The average loss reported was $502, according to the app Truecaller, up from an average of $351 the year before. Scammers are getting smarter and their ploys are becoming more sophisticated, says Clayton LiaBraaten, a senior strategic advisor at Truecaller. 

“They’re generating millions of calls a day, and they just have to get a few bites to be successful,” LiaBraaten tells us. 

We’re taking a closer look at how robocalls and other forms of fraud occur, what types of scams are becoming more common, and how to protect yourself.

Why are phone scams on the rise?

Have you gotten more bogus offers for free cruises or to renew your car’s warranty lately? You’re not alone. Robocalls and robotexts have been steadily increasing for years as more and more people own cell phones and with the emergence of new technology that makes sending scam calls easier than ever, LiaBraaten says. Truecaller estimates that last year Americans lost nearly $30 billion to phone scams.

“The cost of making millions of calls a day has gone down significantly,” he says. 

Scammers often employ a “brute-force” technique, in which they use software to call “every permutation of every U.S. number in every area code” asking for credit card information or money, LiaBraaten says. Or they can take a more targeted approach. For example, if a scammer gets a hold of some of your personal information through a data breach or a major retailer, for example, they can craft a much more compelling robocall — one that might be more likely to lure you in. 

Spoofing, when a caller fakes where they’re calling from to disguise their identity, has also become very common. Oftentimes, scammers will use this to make it appear as if they’re calling from a local number, per the Federal Communications Commission.

What types of phone scams should you be aware of?

There was a noticeable spike in scam calls during the pandemic. According to Truecaller, 59 percent of Americans said they received a scam call or text related to Covid-19 in 2020. Why? Because “fear sells,” LiaBraaten says. 

“At the beginning, we noticed that the bad guys were hunkered down, and there was a lull in activity for about a six-week period,” he tells us. “Then they regrouped and offered everything from fake PPE to fake tests to fake cures to jobs. They rode the pandemic hard because they prey on fear.”

Many robocalls are meant to intimidate. During tax season, there’s usually an uptick in fake calls from the IRS, saying you owe money and offering to provide a discount or an extension if you pay them upfront. This year, LiaBraaten says, there’s a trend of scammers trying to confuse victims about owning cryptocurrency and how it impacts their tax filings. 

A lot of scammers also target vulnerable populations. It’s not uncommon for a caller to extort money out of older Americans by claiming a grandchild or another family member is in trouble, LiaBraaten says. They also target immigrant populations, who may be less familiar with government agencies, and try to scare them into thinking they’ve missed jury duty or an immigration appointment and now have to pay a fine. 

With the midterm elections around the corner, there’s sure to be more fake political fundraising scams, and as interest rates rise, LiaBraaten says he expects to see more calls about bogus mortgage deals. 

The Federal Trade Commission also says the number of Amazon scams have risen sharply in the past couple of years. Since 2020, about one in three people who have reported a business impersonator say the perpetrator pretended to be Amazon. One common ploy is for hackers to offer a refund for an unauthorized purchase and then to accidentally transfer more than promised. They’ll then demand you send back the difference. But what actually happens is that the scammer will move your own money from one account to another (like from your savings to your checking account) to make it look like you were refunded. They’ll then pocket any money you wire over. 

How to protect yourself from phone and text scams

One of the simplest ways to avoid phone scams is to just not pick up calls from unknown numbers and to let them go to voicemail, LiaBraaten says. If you receive a call from a major brand or government agency, you can always hang up and call them back at a verified number, the FCC says

The FCC also warns against giving out any personal information if you’re suspicious about a caller, like your Social Security number, credit card number, or passwords. It also recommends not interacting with a robocall, even if they’re simply asking you to press a button to stop receiving the calls. This trick is often used to identify potential targets, the agency says. 

And since robotexts are also on the rise, LiaBraaten cautions against clicking on any link sent to you from an unknown number to prevent “smishing” (a portmanteau of SMS and phishing). Like phishing scams through email, smishing cybercriminals will try to steal your personal data by either installing malware on your cell phone or by sending you to a fake site where they’ll lure you into entering personal information. 
You can also register with the Do Not Call list. Legitimate telemarketers will avoid calling these numbers, the FCC says.