The phone rings, and you answer the call. The person on the other end informs you that there is a problem with your tax return, your credit card, or some other important financial matter. They might even pretend to be from your doctor’s office, or some other trustworthy organization, and they just need to “update their records”.
Like most honest people, you trust that no one would actually call you with evil intentions in mind. You want to answer their questions and settle the matter right away. But you shouldn’t.
In many cases, these are not genuine telephone calls from the IRS, your bank, your credit card company, your doctor’s office, or anyone else with whom you might do business! Often these types of calls are con artists, trying to trick you into divulging personal information that they can then use to steal your identity.
Any time the phone rings, take these steps to protect yourself:
Screen your calls. It might feel impolite, but you do not have to answer the phone every time it rings. Let your voicemail or answering machine pick up. A legitimate caller will often leave a message, whereas a con artist usually will not.
Use Caller ID. Yes, it costs a few dollars per month to add Caller ID to a landline, but it’s worth it. Caller ID allows you to see who is calling you, so that you can check to make sure the number is a legitimate one. If the display says “unknown”, “out of area”, or “private” – be on guard immediately.
But don’t completely trust Caller ID. A process called “spoofing” allows con artists to create fake numbers that appear legitimate, such as “US Government “ or “Washington DC”. If in doubt, use a reverse lookup system online to verify the phone number is real.
Don’t give out personal information. If someone from your bank or the IRS seems to call and ask for personal information, tell them you will call them back later. Hang up, look up the number for that organization, and call them yourself. Inquire whether there is a concern about your account, and ask if someone called you.
Hang up. Your identity and financial security is more important than politeness. If a call feels “wrong”, hang up the phone. You don’t owe anyone any information about yourself.