Identity theft is an unfortunately common with very serious consequences. It can be difficult to undo the damage, and the perpetrator may be tricky to track down. It makes victims feel unsafe and oftentimes creates a sense of hypervigilance. By being aware and knowledgeable about these scams, we can make small changes in the way we view certain risky interactions that we run into during day to day.

In the past, we’ve talked about online phishing, which happens over the internet. Here, we’re going to look at similar schemes that happen through your phone rather than the web. These schemes can range from simple, obvious scams directly asking for your information to more complex ruses involving social engineering.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering involves scammers cleverly researching enough information about you to make it seem much more believable that they represent a real institution—one that just needs you to confirm your personal information. From there they can create a dilemma or situation that scares or excites you; then they can even impersonate more and more organizations—even law enforcement—to keep the ball rolling, dragging you farther and farther into their illusion. Social engineering happens particularly frequently on phone identity theft scams, because you need to hear a human on the other side of the line. It forces them to dig deeper than just the surface contact information.

Voice Phishing

Voice Phishing (or Vishing) is a common tactic used by scammers very similar to online phishing. Through a variety of channels, a scammer may present you with a phone number to call. The offer is usually something along the lines of “call this number to update/unlock/renew your account.” Like online phishing, these scammers do their best to try to present themselves to you as a legitimate institution. When you call this number, you will be asked to verify your identity or sign in to your account by providing confidential information.

Never call a number before you double check to see whether the number can be found anywhere else. Do you have any old bills, emails, or promotional materials that you could dig up to confirm the phone number? Do not provide full bank account numbers, other banking information, or your social security number over the phone or email.

Pretext Calling

Pretext calling is another form of identity theft that involves your phone. In pretext calling, scammers will make up a reason to call you, pretending to be a real institution, like a bank or credit card company. They might report to you that there is an issue with your card or some sort of information that they need verified. They will ask for your information either in order to solve the problem or verify your identity. This is when they steal your information. Once they have this information, they’ll call the real bank and pretend to be you.

If they claim that you have a problem, double check with your account or a local branch to see if that problem really exists. Be suspicious of unsolicited calls, even if they claim to represent a respected company or law enforcement agency. Always be hesitant to give out information, and ask them why they need a certain piece of information. It doesn’t hurt to ask too many questions, because the scammers are counting on you not to.

Telemarketing Fraud

This is exactly what it sounds like. Scammers will call you pretending to sell you a product or service; they may even be asking for a donation towards a charity or fundraiser. They might offer really unbelievable deals or just be really good salesmen for a great never-before-seen product. Maybe you won a free prize—all you have to do is pay shipping and handling. Their end goal is to request your credit card information or ask you to seal the deal by sending them a sum of money. Some scammers will take your credit card information, charge you for the product they sell, and then go on to commit more identity theft with the information. Others will simply take your money without ever providing anything in return.

As with any telemarketing situation, the sellers will often employ high pressure tactics in order to close the deal on the phone right now. Keep your cool and remind yourself to think realistically throughout the process. You are allowed to have time to think it over. Legitimate sales are not on the spot (they are just going to tell the same thing to the person after you). If you are interested in a deal, the salesperson should respect your right to think it over in spaces away from their influence. Get off the phone, do some more research, talk to friends or family about the decision. Even if it seems like something small, even if they are asking for a small amount, remember that sending money to someone you don’t know is always a risk.

SMS Scams

A more recent evolution of identity theft involves text messaging. More and more people have text messaging these days, so scammers have found a way to exploit this new popular channel, of course. Identity thieves can steal or buy a list of phone numbers and use it to try to reach you through a text message. This is a very efficient way for them to reach a large number of people in a short amount of time—it’s way faster than calling every number. These text messages typically pretend to be sent from reputable contact. It will follow the same pattern of claiming there is an issue with your account or that you could get an amount of money refunded to you. The text includes a link at the end of it, which takes you to a dangerous website. This website will be designed to look as if it is the official website of bank,respected service provider, etc. It will ask you for sensitive personal information, and the thieves will use that to steal your identity.

Most legitimate business do not include a text messaging campaign when trying to handle service issues or send you marketing information. It’s a good idea simply to avoid any text messages you receive from unknown numbers.

Take care of your own identity by staying vigilant. Share this with all of your friends and family who might not be aware of these scams and attacks. Sometimes it’s the most vulnerable members of our community that are most commonly targeted because of their lack of awareness and faith in others, even when they are impersonators.