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How To Deal With Phone Scams And Phishing Safely

What's a phone scam? How will I know if I'm being scammed?

P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute." Don't be one of them! You might think you know every trick in the book, but lots of frauds are designed to trip you up when your guard is down. Most fraud artists have lots of practice in smooth talking and can make you think they're the real deal - these guys definitely didn't play nicely with others back in grade school. Here are some types of scamming:

  • Slamming: when your long distance phone service gets switched to another, more expensive service without your permission. It can happen when you sign up to enter a contest or claim a prize through the mail, or when you get a call offering seemingly lower rates that you don't turn down clearly.
  • Cramming: increasingly larger charges for services you didn't request - like voicemail, personal 800 numbers, and memberships - that pop up on your phone bill. Crammers get your permission to charge the same way that slammers do.
  • Phishing: when someone tries to lure you into giving them sensitive information - like account numbers and passwords - that they can then use for their own purposes. What's the bait? The scammer pretends to represent a legitimate company - like your phone or credit card company - and asks for your information, or reads off wrong info and waits for you to correct them. Another variation of this scam is when you get official-looking emails soliciting the same kind of information.
  • Toll fraud: when someone steals your calling card or account number and PIN, then uses it to call China for hours on end. Another kind of toll fraud is when a scammer tricks you into paying for a call to an 800 number (often by asking you to enter an "activation number" on your phone), calling a 900 number, or calling an international number that looks like a US number (some Caribbean countries have the area code 809, which looks like an 800 number but is much more expensive).
  • Old-fashioned empty promises: the same old song-and-dance routine that scammers have been using since before there were phones. Want a free vacation, "guaranteed" investment or lottery, or million-dollar prize? These scams promise all this and more, for a significant price. Of course, what you actually get (if you get anything at all) - a week in a roach-infested motel, fake collectors' items, etc. - doesn't end up being worth what you paid. Be especially wary of recovery scams; not even government agencies can promise that they'll get your money back, so don't pay someone else to, either.

Ok, hotshot. How do I avoid all these scams?

Patience, grasshopper. The best way to avoid getting scammed is to avoid telemarketers in the first place. Hang up immediately if you hear something that sounds like it is fraudulent, and never assume that you can beat the scammer at his own game - that's exactly the kind of thinking that they count on to lure people in. Here are some other tips:

  • Don't give out personal information to callers you don't know. Only give out information if you initiate the contact, and you are certain about the number you called (sometimes scammers will give you a false customer service number that will lead you to their scam partner).
  • Don't let anyone persuade you to make a decision immediately.
  • Check up on all offers you receive before sending money. Ask for written information on investments and charities, then make sure that they are properly registered. Look up sales and business offers with the Better Business Bureau, local consumer protection agencies, or state Attorney General's office before you buy.
  • Never pay money to get a "free" prize or gift. If it sounds too good to be true, it ALWAYS is.
  • If you call a 900 number, make sure you know how much you're paying per minute, and set a limit for how long you're going to stay on the line.
  • If you purchase something by phone, use a credit card - never send cash by mail. A fraudulent credit charge can be disputed with your credit card company (most credit card companies have chargeback systems for bad charges, and actually cover transactions to a certain degree if your identity gets stolen) , but you probably won't be able to get cash back. Credit cards are always more secure than using a money order, cash, or personal check.
  • Always read over your phone bills carefully, and dispute any charges that you didn't explicitly agree to.
  • Prevent telemarketers from calling you at all: register your phone number with the national Do Not Call List at or by calling 888-382-1222.

I've been scammed! Where can I report the damage and penalize these suckers?

Report phone scams to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357; not a phone scam, we promise!); or to your state Attorney General (for your state, click on the map at the National Association of Attorneys General website).

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