On February 12, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell made the first long-distance telephone call to Thomas Watson. "Mr. Watson, come here," muttered Bell over a crackly phone line.
Little did he know that, nearly 150 years later, robots, not humans, would use his invention for more nefarious purposes. These robots lie, deceive, and defraud. They steal money. They promise free vacations that don't exist. And they do all of this by spoofing legitimate phone numbers.
Over 60 billion robocalls were placed in the United States in 2019—50% more than just one year earlier. Most of these calls rely on caller ID spoofing, where scammers conceal their true identity. These calls might look genuine, but they are not what they seem.
More than a nuisance, caller ID spoofing is an epidemic. It's ruining lives, but the government can't stop it. Not really. Recently legislative changes make it more difficult for scammers to contact people but, for many, the problem persists.
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about caller ID spoofing but didn’t know to ask.
Caller ID spoofing is a practice where scammers falsify the information that appears on your caller ID screen.
Here's an example of it in action:
You've probably received quite a few robocalls by now. Some people receive them every day; others receive them every couple of hours. Spoofing makes these calls even more difficult to detect.
Here are some facts about caller ID spoofing:
As you can see, the problem is getting worse. "Your phone rings. You recognize the number, but when you pick up, it’s someone else.
What’s the deal? Scammers are using fake caller ID information to trick you into thinking they are someone local, someone you trust, like a government agency or police department, or a company you do business with, like your bank or cable provider," says the Federal Trade Commission.
Caller ID spoofing is so successful because people believe someone important is trying to contact them. It's a psychological thing. Even though they haven't expressed interest in receiving a message, the recipient might think that their bank is trying to reach them with important news. Or the government. Or law enforcement.
This is because scammers tend to use local numbers that make their calls appear genuine—until the recipient takes the call, at least. Often, these calls are for fraudulent purposes, where scammers will try to sell a fake product or ask the recipient to provide their bank details.
For people who "fall" for this type of scam, the consequences can be devastating. For others, caller ID spoofing is simply a huge annoyance.
It’s estimated that 1 out of every 10 Americans fall victim to a phone scam each year, with average reported losses of approximately $700 per victim. You've heard the horror stories: The woman who lost her life savings after receiving a spam call. Or the woman who was tricked into handing over her bank details and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Or someone you know. It seems like scammers will go to any length to steal your personal details. Your life savings. Your Social Security number. Listen below to just a few, very real-sounding phone scams that can trick you into hundreds or thousands of dollars in financial losses.
Though not all robocalls are illegal, it's worth pointing out that all scam calls are 100% illegal. This means that someone is committing an offense if they contact you without your permission (except for law enforcement and some government agencies).
Despite their best efforts, agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been unable to stop the flow of calls from spoofed caller IDs. This is because the bulk of these calls originate from outside the U.S. There's a lot of public awareness about caller ID spoofing nowadays. The FTC provides guidance on its website. Phone carriers warn their customers of the dangers. You'll see PSAs on television and in glossy magazines. Still, this doesn't deter scammers. Despite the warnings, some people still fall victim to these scams — which just encourages more robocalls. It's a vicious cycle that never stops.
Here's the real problem: Caller ID spoofing is relatively cheap, and it often produces lucrative outcomes. With the latest auto dialing software, scammers can crank out millions of robocalls a day for just a few dollars. Even if just 0.01% of the population falls victim to these scams, someone, somewhere will generate significant profits.
Caller ID spoofing is also a favorite tool among scammers because it's an easy way around most available solutions to block spam calls today. Because most call blocking services block spam calls on the basis of caller ID, scammers can easily get around placing more spam calls by simply changing their phone number every time they place a new spam call.
"It’s easy to understand why crooks love to dial you up," says AARP. "The FTC reports that the median loss from a successful phone scam in 2019 was $1,000, more than triple the median loss across all fraud types. And new technology is making this illicit work easier."
To get a full picture of the problem of spoofed calls, you only need to go on social media. Here, people post their frustrations about nuisance callers who ring them several times a day and snoop for financial and sensitive information:
Government agencies also warn of the dangers of spoofed calls on social media:
Caller ID spoofing is just one type of robocall, and there are many others. All robocalls circumvent communication laws in the U.S., and most of them have one simple mission: To steal your money.
Ask your friends and family about robocalls, and it's likely that everyone has a story to share. This illegal activity affects some people more than others, and there's no real reason why someone can suddenly become the target of robocalls. Often, scammers auto-dial numbers at random. When the recipient picks up, auto-dialing software might log this as a successful attempt at communication and then bombard that number with further calls until the recipient gives over their personal data. It's a long process and, oftentimes, it's successful.
To combat this problem, many Americans are taking action. You can, too. Start by checking whether your phone number is publicly available in search engines and other public databases. For example, you might have posted your number on your Facebook profile several years ago and completely forgotten about it. Scammers use software that scrapes the internet looking for numbers like these to add to their database.
There have also been cases of legitimate companies selling your number to scammers in the past, perhaps unknowingly. These companies have been fined by the FTC for doing this, but the problem of spam calls still persists for many people. Unless people change their phone numbers, they might continue to receive potentially dangerous, calls.
Businesses are more likely to be affected by spoofed calls than individuals, because they often list their number in public forums, such as websites and social media profiles, in order to generate interest from the public. "Way back in 2014, before robocalls became so ubiquitous, it was estimated that spam calls cost American small businesses a half-billion dollars a year," says USA Today. "That number has certainly skyrocketed by now."
According to the FTC, Americans lost over $1 billion to phone scams in 2019. In the first half of 2020, that number appears to be growing. Consumers have already lost over $13.4 million to coronavirus-related fraud!
Caller ID spoofing can have a number of other effects on consumers. Firstly, there's the hassle that comes with it. Answering these types of calls can be emotionally exhausting, especially if you receive several a day. They can also prevent genuine calls from reaching you. Imagine if you were expecting an important phone call from a business client, only to receive a robocall instead.
Then there are far more devastating consequences. As mentioned earlier, many consumers fall victim to these types of calls. They believe the person on the other end of the line is someone important. Their bank manager. A policeman. A friend. A family member in danger. They might be tricked into handing over their bank details. Or Social Security number. They could lose their life savings. Their retirement funds.
Here's what the FTC says you should do when you receive a spoofed call:
"Report the call to the FTC at donotcall.gov. Report the number on your caller ID and any number you’re told to call back, which helps us track down the scammers behind the call. Even if you think the number on your caller ID is fake, report it. The FTC analyzes complaint data and trends to identify illegal callers based on calling patterns."
This is all very well and good, but scammers use thousands, if not millions, of different phone numbers. These numbers change all the time. It's like a giant game of whack-a-mole, and the problem can seem impossible to solve.
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a new technology that could potentially stop, or at least limit, caller ID spoof calls. Caller ID authentication (also known as STIR/SHAKEN) is still in its early days, but it's a new system that marks potentially unsafe calls as spam, which provides consumers with an extra layer of protection.
Here's how it works: If phone carriers suspect that an incoming call is fraudulent, the recipient of the call will receive a notification on their Caller ID saying "Scam likely." It will then be up to the recipient to answer or reject the call.
Caller ID authentication won't work all the time, though, and it might potentially block genuine calls from getting through to a consumer. However, it is definitely a step in the right direction:
"Such a system is critical to protecting Americans from scam spoofed robocalls and would erode the ability of callers to illegally spoof a caller ID, which scammers use to trick Americans into answering their phones when they shouldn't," says the FCC.
Different phone carriers will need to implement caller ID authentication, and this could go a long way in preventing people from falling victim to scammers over the phone.
"The (greatly) simplified way this would work: Someone would place an outbound call. That call would contain a certificate verifying that the call is indeed coming from the number it claims to be coming from. The phone call is passed along to the incoming carrier (e.g., AT&T), which would then check the certificates public key against a heavily encrypted private key," adds New York Magazine.
While the STIR/SHAKEN framework is a great idea, and is designed to combat call spoofing and spam calls from reaching Americans, the implementation will be limited. It's important to note that STIR/SHAKEN does not block calls, it simply provides a call authentication to combat caller ID spoofing. Further, smaller carriers may not be able to adopt the service right away, especially on older landline systems, and in more rural areas might not be able to take advantage of STIR/SHAKEN.
There are other initiatives, too. In recent years, call blocking apps have become more popular as people take the problem of caller ID spoofing into their own hands. These apps, available on both the App Store and Google Play, compile a list of spam numbers and provide users with a notification every time they receive communications from one of these numbers.
The future of caller ID spoofing looks frightening, with some experts predicting that scammers might even be able to spoof the voices of friends and family to trick you into handing over your sensitive information. Although there's no way to predict the future, scammers will use any means necessary to fool the public.
Taking into account all of the above, there are a number of steps you can take in order to prevent the negative effects of caller ID spoofing. Here are some of them:
This might be difficult for some people. However, not answering unknown calls is the first step in preventing unwanted calls from reaching you. You see, every time you answer a spoofed call, scammers might add you to their system and try again in the future. Then again. Then again.
This can be exhausting and have a devastating impact on your life. This isn't an exaggeration. Some people receive five, 10, 20, even 50 spoofed calls every day. That's right. Every single day. This can prevent genuine calls from friends, family, colleagues, and even emergency services from reaching them.
This might prove fruitless. As you know now, scammers don't just call from one number. They have hundreds, thousands, or perhaps millions of disposable numbers to use with the latest auto-dialing software. These calls might look like they originate from your local area, but this isn't always the case.
If you receive spoofed calls, report them to the FTC. At the very least, this lets them know the extent of the problem so they can continue to work with the government to make real legislative changes. "Report unwanted calls at ftc.gov/complaint. Report the number that appears on your caller ID—even if you think it might be spoofed or faked—and any number you’re told to call back. The FTC analyzes complaint data and trends to identify illegal callers based on calling patterns," says the FTC.
Call blocking apps rely on people to report spoofed calls. Once reported, phone numbers from spoofed calls are added to a huge database that prevents other people from receiving calls from those numbers. You can download a call blocking app on your phone to limit the problem of spoofed calls and see if you notice any improvements.
There are various call blocking apps out there, so make sure you choose the right one. Some are completely free to use and others require a monthly fee. Shop around, and do your research. Remember, some apps might need permission to access your cell phone contacts in order to work properly. If you're concerned about privacy, take this into consideration.
Of the call blocker apps available for iOS and Android, there's one on the front lines of the war against spoofing. Backed by a predictive audio algorithm, Robokiller uses machine learning to predict and block spam calls before they happen.
With Robokiller, unsafe calls are automatically blocked and intercepted by Answer Bots. Think of them as our army of spam blockers — fighting robots with robots. While Answer Bots get sweet robocall revenge, a unique audio fingerprint is created and added to our global blacklist. Once Robokiller has the data, we send a clear message to spammers.
Robokiller's global database of over 200 million unique spam numbers keeps users protected from emerging scams and headaches — all while helping bring the spam call problem to a complete stop.
Here are some of the other benefits of Robokiller that you need to know about:
Robokiller has been featured in Wired, Engadget, Vice, NBC, and The New York Times, among others.
Ask your carrier if they are implementing caller ID authentication and whether there is a charge for this service. Caller ID authentication works in a similar way to call blocking apps. However, you won't need to download anything to your phone, and the FCC will work closely with carriers to prevent spoofed calls.
You might also want to ask your carrier to remove your number from public databases that list this type of information. This can be difficult if you are a business and rely on calls from the public in order to sell your products and services. If you are an individual, however, you should consider removing your information from these public lists. Often, scammers will scrape the internet looking for public numbers, so removing your information might reduce spoofed calls significantly.
Genuine companies are not supposed to call numbers on the Do Not Call Registry. This is a collection of numbers from individuals and businesses who do not want to receive sales and marketing communications from third parties. The problem is, scammers don't really care about the Do Not Call Registry, and this won't deter them from contacting you. However, it doesn't hurt to be added to this list, and it can, at the very least, prevent genuine companies from annoying you if you don't want to receive marketing communications.
There's an epidemic sweeping across the United States, and it's called caller ID spoofing. For millions and millions of Americans, the calls they receive are just not what they seem. The reality is, scammers are hoping that you will pick up your phone so they can phish for sensitive information and trick you into handing over your details. In many cases, scammers will bombard you with call after call after call, and this can make your life miserable.
What can you do about it?