phone scammers wreak havoc on Americans and their wallets

bots and con artists stole more than $40 billion from nearly 70 million people in 2022.

Published: May 1st, 2023
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Irene Llanes’ day started like any other. She’d become accustomed to living far from her son, who was stationed at a North Carolina military base, and was ready to embrace retirement in Florida.

Llanes began to unwind for the night with her husband and chihuahua Shaq when she received a call from an unknown number.

"They called saying my son was kidnapped,” Llanes recalled, “They asked for a lot of money… a lot.”

Unbeknownst to Llanes, the scam callers did not have her son. He was sleeping peacefully in the comfort of his base.

Despite this, Llanes spent hours on the line with the perpetrators as they shared personal details about her son that sent her into a panic. It took friends and neighbors the remainder of the evening to convince Llanes that she was a victim of a scam attempt.

Eventually, she would reluctantly refrain from giving thousands to the crooks toying with her emotions from the other end of the receiver. While the scammers were unsuccessful, the trauma lingers for Llanes and her family years later.  

Llanes is not alone in her horror story. As many as 68.4 million Americans succumbed to a phone scam in 2022 alone, a 3% increase from 2021 according to a study by Truecaller, a caller ID and spam blocking mobile app. The scammers made off with more than $40 billion, representing a 32.5% increase from 2021.

“This stuff is exploding," Robert Burda, CEO of non-profit Cybercrime Support Network said of phone scams. “Con artists have been separating people from their money and belongings for centuries, but the rampant rise of modern technology has made it effortless for scammers to target victims on a grand scale.”  

Phone scams themselves predate mobile devices when most households had a single phone. But the prevalence of mobile phones in our society has given scammers more targets than ever before. So how do they find what numbers to call, and how can they commendare other people’s phones to make it seem like the call is originating from a local number?  

Burda said our information-dense, modern lives make it easy, giving scammers multiple avenues to collect consumer information and target potential victims. Data breaches, identity theft, web scrapers that track social media and even online background-checking services all provide opportunities for scammers, Burda said.

Scam Voicemails: How They Get You

Phone scams come in many different forms, and if they can’t get you on the line, scammers often leave voicemails to entice a callback. Aaron Foss, creator of robocall blocking service Nomorobo, has examined a plethora of scam voicemails. Using bots on phone lines, he was able to compile a database of different scam voicemails and examine the tactics phone scammers use in these recorded messages. Foss said  many scammers use similar patterns to reel in potential victims. Foss went through the following scam voicemail examples to share his insights.

Scamming Has No Discount

Scamming Has No Discount

Here, the scammers are trying to entice potential victims with an AT&T/DirectTV discount that seems too good to be true. Scammers leave mass voicemails of this message with fake deals to trick as many people as possible into eventually calling back so that they can get consumers' info. Who knows what scammers will do with this information, “but any way you slice it, it’s not good,” Foss said.

International Blackmail

International Blackmail

This scam voicemail threatens potential victims with an ominous message stating that their social security number has been compromised. Callback to these numbers will get redirected internationally to a live scammer who will try to sell products to “protect” the victim’s personal information as a ruse to steal money from their accounts. “You don’t want to deal with anyone selling anything to you through the phone system. It’s either a scam or it’s a dubious product at best,” Foss said.

Scammers Cashing In

Scammers Cashing In

Scammers in this voicemail are using CashApp as leverage to get victims' personal information and money. Scams like this prey on vulnerable victims who may already own CashApp or similar apps connected to bank accounts by tricking them into giving out personal information to “save” themselves. “They’re giving their username and password, getting access to a bank account, and next thing you know, they’re draining and losing all their money,” Foss said.

Another way scammers obtain personal information is through so-called "sucker lists." When someone gets scammed, Burda said, they are not only losing money but also their identifying data that will then be reused by other scammers. This lands victims on sucker lists, which collect information on likely victims or vulnerable numbers that scammers can then trade and sell amongst each other on the dark web.

Once scammers have collected phone numbers, they use phone spoofing to target individuals. When a scammer spoofs a number, they are mimicking a caller ID, which is the name or number that appears when a call comes in, to make it appear as though it is coming from a particular area code or even a specific agency, Burda said.

"You can make it look like the phone call came from the White House or from the IRS or from the FBI,” he said, “Or you'll look at the number on your phone and then you'll look up and go, ‘hey, I know that number.’"

Caller ID spoofing is frequently used to trick phone scam victims, but it also acts as a crucial tool for companies, said Kent Welch, chief data officer at FirstOrion. Welch points to large corporations who use legal spoofing to outsource phone calls while ensuring it appears to originate from one caller ID. He said that companies have the legal right to do this, as it can help protect employees' phone numbers and increase their efficiency handling and redirecting phone calls.  

Government agencies such as the FCC have not been oblivious to scammers' methods to target civilian wallets and data. In response to the rise of phone scams, the agency has implemented regulations to combat these exploitations, such as the TRACED Act in 2019. The FCC act provides "a set of technical standards and protocols that allow for the authentication and verification of caller ID," according to the agency's website.  

These new regulations enforce the STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited)/SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) framework, a complicated set of guidelines the FCC required phone companies to adopt that was meant to certify caller ID, said Aaron Foss, founder and CEO of robocall blocking service Nomorobo. "It's basically attesting to the fact that it is a legitimate number, it speaks nothing to the content, speaks nothing to anything that's coming over that call."  

The TRACED Act also created provisions to make tracing back calls easier than it was before, Foss said. Through the TRACED Act guidelines, calls can be traced back to gateway carriers – centers that handle and redirect calls from one location to another with a higher efficiency.

Gateway carriers are not in the business of limiting phone traffic, Foss said, because they profit from transmitting calls from one source to another, regardless of the call’s  authenticity. They are willing to handle and direct scam calls, even when they know they may be suspicious, since they run the risk of losing money if they shut down a call, Foss said. With improved capabilities from the TRACED Act, the FCC can better identify and threaten gateway carriers who are facilitating scam calls by urging other carriers to avoid taking their phone traffic, pushing the providers to better vet their calls.

However, scammers have found ways to use STIR/SHAKEN to their advantage and circumnavigate the protocols. Welch said scammers could hack multi-line phone systems that large companies use to transfer calls to make it appear that their calls originate from these systems instead of their phone lines.  

Besides hacking into multi-line systems, phone scammers have also been working with third party companies to buy phone numbers, allowing them to work around STIR/SHAKEN verification, Foss said. Scammers can buy numbers verified as genuine by STIR/SHAKEN standards and use those otherwise legitimate phone numbers to run their calls.  

"Everybody was promising a magic bullet, every robocall is going to go away,” Foss said. “That's pretty ridiculous, right? That's not going to happen. There's so much money that these criminals are making from this, they're going to find ways around it.”

Legally, the United States faces challenges in fighting against phone scams. Taking action is difficult as "the majority of bad guys are outside of the U.S. where the U.S. has no ability to look into them," and no jurisdiction to go after them, Welch said. There are similarly few avenues for prosecution against domestic scammers, leaving victims empty-handed as agencies do not have the proper means to legally recuperate losses from criminals.

Any solution to scam calls must include collective effort, Foss said. The carriers need to go and enforce and do some filtering, the government needs to go and make more regulations, companies have to make better technologies and consumers have to protect themselves."

Although it may be a foregone conclusion that scam calls are not going anywhere anytime soon, cooperation in developing prevention efforts can help prevent others like Llanes from falling victim to phone scams.

About the Illustrations

The images on this article were generated by Midjourney using the following prompts and further refined by our illustrators:

Phone collage: Call from unknown number, Scams, Frauds, Fake News, Lies, collage art by Alex Lorenzo, behance contest winner, eclectic, maximalist, mixed media, modern art, fragments of paper, magazine clippings, found objects, a fusion of different textures, materials and patterns, layered, hd image on behance, featured on behance, collage, unique, modern art

Robot portraits: A female robot at a call center office, sitting at a desk with a computer, wearing a headset, in Pixar style.