Fraud is far-reaching, but somehow largely ignored in American culture. The internet has fueled an unimaginable growth in the scam industry, and year after year millions fall prey simply due to carelessness. With the FTC reporting that 2017 saw 2.7 million reports of fraud that added up to $905 million in total fraud losses (the scary part is these stats are normal compared to previous years), it’s time to have a real conversation.
Why are we here at MightyCall doing this?
Well, to be entirely honest, VoIP phone services, including our own, have become increasingly popular for use as a means to scam others. We’re always on the lookout for people who may be using the service to scam others, and we’re quick to shut down any accounts with unusual activity—but it does take time and patterns for us to catch scammers.
The fact that maybe a dozen people use MightyCall malignantly doesn’t affect 99.9% of our users, but the very real scams that happen to millions of Americans need to be combated.
Here’s a digestible breakdown of the Who, What, Where, and How of some of the scams currently floating around. I apologize in advance if this is overwhelming.
(Also, an obligatory note—falling for any kind of fraud does not mean someone is stupid, as many scams originate from people whose job it is to solely think up fraudulent mechanisms. This episode of the podcast Reply All is wonderful at illustrating this point, and it’s a short listen at about a 22-minute runtime sans ads.)
Where are the scammers from?
This is the hardest question to answer when analyzing fraud. Contrary to popular belief, there are scammers all over the world, and our homegrown American scammers often wreak the most havoc.
Pindrop Labs, a technological company that specializes in phone security, estimated that 64% of fraudulent calls originate in a foreign country after reviewing their database. Since only 6.6% of legitimate calls are international, it should be a huge red flag when you get an unknown international call. If you do not know people living abroad and you receive a call from another country, be wary and quick to hang up the phone.
Email spam is even more prevalent than phone scams—it accounts for 45% of all email, with approximately 14.5 billion spam emails sent daily. While many email scams are ridiculous—Nigerian princes seeking help and terminally-ill billionaires trying to leave you their inheritance—some are quite advanced, with 3 out of 4 companies succumbing to a phishing scam in 2016.
What’s worse about email scams is that their origin isn’t important. You may note that a lot of spam has terrible grammar and guess that it’s because it’s from Nigeria or somewhere, but that isn’t always true. Even American-based scammers intentionally write like an underachieving 3rd grader to intentionally target the most gullible people.
Who do scammers target?
Everyone deals with spam in one way or another, but fraud works best on three different groups: Companies, the elderly, and (surprise!) Millennials.
Companies are vulnerable (as seen in the stat above) due to the sheer number of people involved. All it takes is one person to not recognize their colleague’s normal email address has been tweaked slightly (for example, from Johnsmith@gmail.com to firstname.lastname@example.org) to share company documents that may lead to further targeting.
The elderly, who you would guess are the most vulnerable, often are. Older people are more likely to pick up the phone, and being less inclined with technology, may not know what to flag in a suspicious email or call.
(If you have a loved one over the age of 60, we strongly recommend watching their finances for anything unusual and talking to them about the most common scam operations. This is a situation where the saying, “With age comes wisdom” doesn’t apply.)
Last year however, it was actually Millennials who reported being scammed most often. While people in their 20s and early 30s lost less money than seniors per scam, they fell for “quick cash” and social media scams at alarming rates. This is likely due to a couple things: an unwavering belief that anything you see on social media must be true (we have recently learned and been reckoning with the truth of that matter) and the irrational confidence that they are too smart to fall for a scam.
For the young people out there, know that it’s better to be safe than sorry—take a few seconds to ask yourself if something is too good to be true before sending money anywhere.
What scams are common?
This is a good consolidation of the most common scams out there now: https://www.maketecheasier.com/internet-scams-to-avoid/.
Important disclaimer: fraudsters are constantly changing things up, and programs and “robots” they create to aid them are only growing more and more advanced. Simply knowing what have been common scams does not protect you from any scams that may pop up in the future.
In addition to the scams listed in the link above, these are the 4 phone scams that we here at MightyCall have been tracking over the past few months:
- Someone calls you pretending to be from the IRS, saying that you owe money after incorrectly filing your taxes (or something along those lines)
- An email blast is sent out to customers of a particular company (in our case, it was AT&T customers targeted), informing them of a new special offer. Upon inquiry, the victim would be asked to buy and send the code for a $250 Amazon giftcard to pay for the upgraded offer; the scammers justified buying a giftcard by saying it was a joint Amazon and AT&T campaign.
- Scammers, claiming to be from your electric company, will call people with outstanding debt and threaten to “shut off” their electricity if they don’t send payment immediately.
- Scammers posing as IT specialists will call offering software (normally antivirus software). During the remote installation of said software, they will either hold your computer hostage until you pay for the software or will steal your personal information for later use. It’s typical for these scammers to claim to be Microsoft employees.
What else do I need to know for my own protection?
IIn case you didn’t hear about the Equifax data breach that occurred in 2017, you should know that even your credit card information could be at risk. Equifax, which is one of the country’s three credit reporting agencies and has access to most Americans’ personal information, was hacked last year; in the hack, the sensitive information—such as addresses, social security numbers, and in some cases credit card info—of about 143 million Americans was compromised.
We’re not trying to scare you, but your personal information could very well be floating out there in cyberspace, and if it is, you are a more likely target of both identity theft and phishing.
If you want to know if your info has been compromised, or what to do next if it has, please visit this link:
How can I protect myself?
It goes without saying, but always double-check anything you deem strange; even if you merely get a tiny tinge in your gut, take the time to investigate.
One dead giveaway of a scam is how you are asked to pay. If you’re being asked to send a wire transfer, to buy a giftcard, or to send money through a service like paypal, it’s 100% a scam. The government and any official companies will never, ever ask you to pay through any of those methods.
Another important thing not to overlook: THE GOVERNMENT AND ITS INSTITUTIONS DON’T CALL OR EMAIL YOU! (That’s what the Postal Service is literally for nowadays.)
In the strange occurrence that they would, it wouldn’t be about money. The same goes for big companies like Microsoft or local utility companies—they never call.
If Microsoft has new software, there’ll be a popup on your computer or something to let you know; if you’re behind on your bills, you’ll get multiple warnings mailed to you before one day the water/gas/electricity/etc. is suddenly shut off.
If someone contacts you posing as a member of government or any company, you should find the appropriate phone number or email address of the government department or company and ask them if they contacted you. After they tell you they haven’t, report the scammer to the FTC immediately.
Another bit of advice guaranteed to never fail you—ask friends and others what they think about any sketchy calls or emails you get or things you see online.
Why have scammers been using VoIP providers?
They use it because it’s cheap and easy to sign up, so they can run a scam, get paid, and cancel without leaving themselves open to getting caught.
Scammers need a legitimate phone number to initiate phone scams, so they abuse the ease of access VoIP providers offer.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to stop them when they sign up because they typically use stolen credit cards—which means that the payment goes through without a snag and we have no reason to initially be suspicious.
That’s not to say that we’re powerless to stop them though—we find and shut down over 80% of scammers in the first 2 business days. That’s good, but we want to be better.
We already block suspicious IP addresses, but analyzing calling activity is the best way to determine who’s abusing the system. To do that, we’re making strides toward an hourly system that comprehensively monitors phone usage to catch scammers as quickly as possible.
To clarify, we are not listening to your phone calls NSA-style, but we look at the number of minutes used and calls made within certain windows, and irregularly high amounts immediately tip us off and draw investigation to see if the business is legitimate.
How worried should I be?
Don’t be worried—be careful.
Here are some additional links with great information about scams; I’m also including two youtube clips from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that cover these topics because they do a better job of providing entertaining education about them than anything else I’ve seen.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxUAntt1z2c (the illegality of debt buyers)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPjgRKW_Jmk (Equifax coverage)