Watch out! These 7 phone call scams could steal your money

Phone call scammers are sneakier than you’d think, but you need to protect your money and information. Here are 7 classic scams to be wary of. By Marissa Laliberte and Greg Barton. All images: iStock

1. “Can you hear me?”

Pause before speaking if a caller starts by asking, “Can you hear me?” Scammers are looking for a specific answer, says Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of the US-based Identity Theft Resource Center. “By getting you to answer ‘yes’ to that one question at the very beginning of the call – as opposed to somewhere in the middle of the conversation, where dubbing would be more obvious – scammers can record your affirmative answer,” she says. They can use that recording to claim you agreed to pay for some scam program. Even if it looks like the call is from someone you know, rephrase your answer to “I hear you just fine” to be safe, suggests Velasquez.

2. IRD and ATO impersonators

Don’t freak out if someone claiming to be from the Australian Tax Office (or, in New Zealand, the Inland Revenue Department) calls to collect money. Scammers use fear tactics and threaten to send the police if you don’t pay up immediately, but don’t fall for it. Government bodies such as the IRD and ATO will commonly get in touch with you in the mail, on official letterhead. Even if the callers don’t ask for money, they could prey on your information by asking you to verify your identity. They might even quote information you’d think only the ATO or IRD could know, like what you paid in taxes last year, but that doesn’t mean you can trust them with your private details. Hang up and call a phone number you can verify online.

3. Bank calls

The ATO or the IRD won’t call, but your bank might, which makes it harder to figure out if it’s the real deal. Plus, it makes sense that your bank would need to confirm your identity to protect your account. If your bank calls and asks you to confirm if transactions are legitimate, feel free to give a yes or no. But don’t give up any more information than that, says Adam Levin, founder of global identity protection and data risk services firm CyberScout and author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. Some scammers rattle off your credit card number and expiration date, then ask you to say your security code as confirmation, he says. Others will claim they froze your credit card because you might be a fraud victim, then ask for your pin number or other secure details. Only give out that kind of information out if you made the call – and don’t just use the number that contacted you. “Flip your credit card or debit card over, look at the number, call customer service and ask if you guys just called me,” says Levin. “They have on the computer if they did or didn’t.”

4. Tech support

If someone claiming to be from Microsoft, Apple, or another tech company calls to ask if you’ve had computer problems, just say no and hang up. “No one is ‘watching’ your computer for signs of a virus,” says Velasquez. Those scammers won’t fix the problem – they’ll make it worse by installing malware, says cybersecurity expert John Sileo. What’s worse, you might not connect those later problems to that scam call. The fake tech support put it in your head that your computer is slow, so you might think it’s normal when you notice it’s lagging later on, he says.

5. Grandparent scam

Scammers sometimes target elderly people, pretending to be a grandchild. On a crackly line, they’ll say they’re in trouble – maybe they lost their wallet in a foreign country – and need you to send money, says Levin. Unless you can confirm it’s actually a relative, don’t give any money. “If you are truly concerned, gather the appropriate information from the scammers and hang up,” says Velasquez. “Confirm your grandchild’s safety before doing anything else.”

6. Lucky winner

Congrats, you just won a million dollars! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That big cash prize or amazing holiday sounds too tempting to ignore, but real contests only enter you if you ask. “In a legitimate lottery or sweepstakes, you have to enter the contest somehow,” says Velasquez. “If you ever ‘win’ a prize that you didn’t enter – especially one with a prize worth millions of dollars – you’re probably being scammed.” Even if you did enter a lottery, don’t trust a supposed tax collector who contacts you. You would need to pay taxes on your winnings eventually, but never before you receive the money, says Velasquez.

7. Donation collections

When charities and other non-profits request donations over the phone, it’s OK to show a little healthy skepticism. “Some will be legitimate. Many will not,” says Levin. “Risk being rude and saying you will call back, or say ‘Then send me something. I want to read about it.’” If it is a cause you care about, do a little digging online to figure out if it’s a real charity. Even legitimate charities might not live up to their good-deed claims though. Verify from a third party like in Australia, which rates organisations on factors like how transparent they are with administrative costs and the general availability of their financial reports, or in New Zealand.