Social Engineering, Identify Theft, and “Vishing Attacks:” How to Avoid Being Ripped Off by Phone Scams

New technology is a marvel. Every month, it seems, there’s a new breakthrough, and for the most part, we grow to love it. After all, who really wants to return to the days when we had twelve channels on TV?

But every new technology also seems to usher in a new wave of unscrupulous, enterprising scammers looking for ways to make a dishonest buck.

In fact, if you’ve begun to notice that most calls you receive on your mobile phone these days are robocalls from numbers you don’t recognize, you’re onto something. In 2018, a brand-new report says Americans received (and for the most part, rightly ignored) 29.3 billion automated phone calls—many of them attempted scams. A data security firm recently predicted nearly half of all calls made to cellular phones in 2019 will be fraudulent —the kinds of calls that lead to identity theft.

In fact, in 2017 identity fraud hit an all-time high. 16.7 million Americans were impacted, with losses of $22.1 million. That means the time to get smart about robocalls is now. And in the case of unsolicited phone calls, the best phone etiquette is to be rude.

Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering relies on psychology and good manners to gain cooperation. It is targeted psychological manipulation. And it is nefarious. (In 2016, a skilled social engineer was notoriously able to add herself to a tech journalist’s cell phone account, change his password, and add a nonexistent daughter to the account, all on camera while he watched, simply by playing a recording of a crying baby in the background and acting flustered and grateful…while a naïve, customer service rep essentially handed his account over to a total stranger.)

One of the earliest types of social engineering attacks came in the form email-based identity theft scams called “phishing”—a novel spelling of “fishing.” In phishing schemes, legitimate-looking emails trick people into clicking on links that send them to fake web sites that look like legitimate bank, credit card, or other trustworthy sites, where they “log in” and “verify” their identities using real account data and sensitive personal information (full names, account or social security numbers, account passwords, and so forth).

As consumers have grown wiser about these scams (and spam filters have grown more effective at deleting phishing emails), scammers kept up, finding new ways to try to obtain that information. Thus, Voice Phishing, or vishing, was born, also known as a phone scam.

It’s easy, after all, to ignore an email. But it’s sometimes harder to ignore a person (or “company”) who took the time to calls and try to help you. That’s where the power of social engineering comes into the equation.

The truth is, most of us have been trained since birth to be kind, polite, and grateful. And unfortunately, that very training is weaponized by vishers, who rely on our social graces to worm their way into our wallets.

Then there’s the phone scam fear factor.

What if you received a frantic phone call about a beloved niece, traveling alone in a remote area? (Thanks, Instagram/Facebook/Twitter selfies!) What if the caller told you she’s been in a terrible accident, her parents can’t be reached, she needs lifesaving surgery, you’re listed in her phone as her next-closest relative, and…you need to urgently wire $10,000 for emergency surgery to the hospital at Account Number XX-XXXXXXXXXX?

Family emergency phone scams are so common, in fact, the United States Federal Trade Commission has issued a specific warning against them.

It’s almost enough to make you consider never answering your phone unless you recognize the caller ID again, isn’t it?

How to Protect Yourself from Vishing Attacks and Phone Scams
  • Use your voicemail. Let your phone do the heavy lifting for you and let voicemail screen your calls. If you don’t recognize the number of an incoming call, let it go. Check the message afterwards and decide whether it sounds legitimate or not. If a message says there is a problem and you should return a call, double-check the number online or with directory assistance. Don’t simply call the number without verifying it’s a legitimate number.
  • Turn the tables. If you answer a call and an unsolicited caller asks you to verify your identity by providing secure details only you would know (such as account information, PINs, or other personally identifying information), ask for the caller’s own verifying information, including full name, department, branch, and a main switchboard callback number. Then insist on calling back in your own time, at your own pace. Very few things are so urgent they require immediate action within the next ten minutes to one hour. Slow it down. Take your time. “Urgent!” is Almost always a red flag.
  • Never provide sensitive, personally identifying information over the phone if you did not initiate the call. Medicare, the IRS, credit card companies, and other legitimate organizations never call consumers directly, out of the blue, and ask for personally identifying information. It’s really that simple. (If you called them, of course, then it’s not only OK to verifying your identity; you should be thrilled they’re asking.)
  • If you have a smartphone, use a spam-call blocking app. Hiya and Truecaller, both free for IOS and Android phones, offer powerful caller identification and blocking capabilities beyond the built-in features of most cellphones and can be useful adjuncts to help manage the ever-increasing number of junk calls that aren’t covered by the national do-not-call registry (which many vishers, located outside the U.S., simply ignore anyway).
  • Ask your cellular provider about enhanced spam and scam call blocking technology. Nearly every cellular provider offers low-cost or no-cost add-on features for an extra dollar or two per month that can significantly cut down on the number of unsolicited calls you receive.
  • Get ready to avoid the next scam. Smishers are out there, working on the next version of identity-theft. (Smishing? What’s smishing? Glad you asked. It uses SMS [text messaging] for the same goals as vishing or phishing. In other words: Same scam, different day.)
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47 thoughts on “Social Engineering, Identify Theft, and “Vishing Attacks:” How to Avoid Being Ripped Off by Phone Scams

  1. Anonymous
    April 8, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    Be careful even if you initiate a call. I know someone who called a number she found on line (a scammer) who asked for gift cards.

  2. Anonymous
    April 9, 2019 at 2:31 am

    Yes! It happened to me. I googled the number to I-Tunes because I received a (fraudulent) invoice stating my account would be debited $78.00. Turns out it was a scam and the guy on the other end wanted me to buy an ITunes card for $100 and he would stay on the line while I went to the store. It would all be refunded…. Be careful out there!

  3. Elizabeth Ponterio
    April 9, 2019 at 5:13 am

    I went through this with what was presented as Apple fraud protection. I got calls and e mails at least four times. I was told my account had been hacked by 267 people all over the world. I had to immediately act or all my accounts would be quickly depleted. I gave no information and was told I had to purchase Google play cards that would be used and immediately refunded. I hung up immediately. Told him he ought to ashamed trying to victimize a 73 year old grandmother on Social Security. I doubt he cared.

  4. Tressa A Stevens
    April 10, 2019 at 2:24 am

    I have a call blocking app on my cellphone.It really helps.

  5. Gretchen
    April 10, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    My grandpa who is now deceased had a phone scam a few years ago. He got a call that my brother had been arrested in another country and needed bail money right away. My grandfather actually withdrew the money from the bank and went to a western Union. The lady there told him not to do it that it was a scam

  6. Anonymous
    April 11, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    For a while, I answered suspicious calls with a bogus company–like Ozarks Mule Company or Jones Creek Fraud Investigation. Don’t get many now. Did answer one that was from our local oil company. Was immediately suspicious when the caller said there was a problem with our credit card. Why? We always pay by check.

  7. Anonymous
    April 12, 2019 at 3:07 am

    I finf that screaming f#$%## off works pretty well.

  8. Anonymous
    April 12, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    Also…if you are ever asked “can you hear me” never answer this question….never…with a yes response you have just agreed to buy the product. Also, got a call from my health insurance company about a claim. Told the caller the claim was a fraud and he had better get his crap right before making a call. Never gave out any of my info. Just hung up on the idiot.

  9. Marcia Proctor
    April 12, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    I’ve gotten the fake IRS car many times. I am well prepared to see the police come and arrest me in the next 10 minutes if I don’t give them what they want. One time I was out in the car when I got one of those calls and I live close to Washington DC. I told the man that I would be happy to come to his office at the IRS since I was close by. He hung up very quickly.

  10. Judith W Hughes
    April 13, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    You didn’t mention spoofing … my latest bane. Someone is using my phone number to generate robo calls – most recently the Microsoft license scam. My local phone company tells me there is nothing I can do.

  11. Lin
    April 14, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    Got a call from some scammer trying to send a refund from Apple. I don’t have such an account they wanted banking info. Gave them nothing called them a scammer and blocked the number.

  12. Anonymous
    April 14, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    They tried to get me also so I gave the number to police it’s been added to the list.

  13. Pat Christensen
    April 16, 2019 at 6:53 am

    I decided to no longer be kind or polite. I will tell callers, “I don’t want that”, “I didn’t order it”, “I think you are trying to scam me” (and hang up). I also threaten to sue the (fake) company if they call me again. Those won’t stand up to any really determined scammers, but they have worked so far

  14. Barb howlet
    April 18, 2019 at 4:46 am

    A new twist. My cell phone rings. It is my number showing yo on the screen. I am puzzled. I answer and it’s Microsoft telling me I have a refund coming. All I need to do is give my info. It calls me at least ten times a day

  15. Anonymous
    April 18, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    I had 26 calls one day by someone who was using my phone number. My number was showing up on my caller ID. It was on my “land line”, so I picked it up and put it right back down finally and that ended the calls. I do that with all calls that I don’t know. Don’t ever let them hear your voice. They can use it.

  16. Anonymous
    April 19, 2019 at 3:01 am

    How do we talk rudely to a record? Abouhalf of these calls are recorded.

  17. Anonymous
    April 21, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    I have had 3 calls come in on my landline that looked like they were coming from me!! Showed my phone # and my name. The first time it happened I called the phone company to report it and was told it was impossible!!

    I also found that when you get a call and they say they are calling from the electric company to help lower your electric bill, cable bill, etc. If you question them by asking why it doesn’t show the name of the electric company on the caller I’d, they usually hang up.

  18. Cat Cavanaugh
    April 21, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    I go the route of being not only ride but silly. Love to waste their time! Examples are:
    Can YOU hear me or are you just stupid?
    Talking quickly so they can’t get a word in…Hey! Are you ever getting over here? I have had breakfast on the table for 30 minutes!! OR. I thought I told you my husband is MARRIED!

    Anything silly and said loudly will work!!

  19. Anonymous
    April 22, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Everyone should tell there phone co they’re going to shut there phone service if they don’t do something about it watch how fast they come up
    With something to stop it

  20. Barbara
    April 23, 2019 at 2:43 am

    I get the calls everyday on my cell and my landline. If I don’t recognize the number I don’t answer. Then I block the number and they call back on another number. I’ve got those can you hear me calls also.

  21. Barbara
    April 23, 2019 at 2:46 am

    It said I had already commented with that same message. I have not. Is this a scam also.

  22. Rick Sebastian
    April 23, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    I have received several calls from obviously “eastern” males, telling me they can no longer serve my computer malware acct. so they are offering a refund– I don’t have a malware acct. and I never paid anyone who would be able to refund to me– that is as far as they get- I hang up. as I do when any “HAJJII” calls me — I dont know anyone in India or middle east.

  23. Paula
    April 24, 2019 at 2:18 am

    I got a call that my grandson was in jail and needed money for bail. I said, “What? Again? He’s no good. Let him rot in jail.” They hung up.

    Another time someone called on a federal holiday, saying they were Medicare and wanted to verify my information. I said, “Sure. Read me what you have and I’ll tell you if it’s correct.” End of call.

    Yesterday I got two who asked, “Can you hear me?” I said, “Speak up! I can’t hear you.” And I hung up.

    I usually don’t answer unknown numbers p, but now they are spoofed to look like local numbers.

  24. Susie
    April 25, 2019 at 4:32 am

    I once saw a video where the person answers the phone and says to the telemarketer we are the police and the person you are calling has just been murdered If you’re a friend we need your name and phone number

  25. Anonymous
    April 25, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    We got a call that my husband answered about selling us a condo. My husband said “you want to sell me a condom? The guy hung up.

  26. Verna Wilson
    April 27, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    I got a call from a scammer that I had told to take me off their calling list. I told her she had called before. She said no, I haven’t. I replied, yes you did and you had the same cheesy line then. She hasn’t called back. Be careful of calls claiming to be Microsoft and Windows. Also got a magazine scam claiming to be Cat Fancy.. I called them and they said they only correspond through the mail.

  27. Connie Parham
    April 28, 2019 at 12:52 am

    I don’t answer a number I do not recognize, also my phone tells me likely scam! I really do appreciate that!

  28. Beth Richards
    April 28, 2019 at 2:39 am

    Exactly. All the calls I get these days are recorded, and they are spoofing local numbers.

  29. Anonymous
    April 28, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    I just don’t answer the phone anymore. If it’s a number in my contacts I will. Otherwise it can go to VM. 99 out of a 100 times they do not leave a message. Just don’t answer it!

  30. Shirley Duff
    April 29, 2019 at 2:13 am

    I answer the phone sheriff’s office fraud unit if I don’t know the number I usally hear a click right away

  31. Louise Skrabut
    April 29, 2019 at 6:16 am

    A real estate company is using my home (sketch of a house) COMPARISON with their house selling on a computer, , they are giving descriptions of my bedrooms, baths, etc … they never asked my permission to give details . I never dealt with them . These details are not correct today. This is a scam.

  32. Julia
    April 29, 2019 at 2:14 pm

    Student loan forgiveness scams are the worst ones out there. I probably receive 20+ calls a, week. these people are insistant will not take no for an answer the try and bully you into giving them info. When you hang up and block them they just call from a difrent number using a difrent Americanized name. Same guy or gal just difrent first name. The numbers look legit since they are coming in as local calls. FYI my student loan has been paid off for going on three years now. However if you ever had a student loan they somehow know and try and scam you when you ask them were they got your name the will say things like federal government. Or American education services or you were on a list. AES will never give out your info these people are just phishing for you SS # name ect.

  33. Anonymous
    April 29, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    I ask if the person on the phone is a robot. Usually the robot does not have a good answer for this question.

  34. Anonymous
    April 30, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    You can register for the National Do Not Call List at or by calling 1-888-382-1222. This is mainly for telemarketers (sales). If you still get sales calls after 31 days from registration, you can report at the Web site or by phone at the same number. There’s also some good info at the Web site for handling unwanted calls in general. In any case, if you don’t recognize the caller ID, or if it looks suspicious, let it go to voice mail. If it’s a legitimate call, you can always call back.

  35. Dina Francia
    April 30, 2019 at 11:56 pm

    Got a call from electric company. The caller I’d said it was the electric company. They wanted cash for some meter or what have you. I knew it was a scam when they demanded cash.

  36. Anonymous
    May 1, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    I answer “Coroners Office” or “ OK it’s done but there is blood all over. What should it do now” then there is a click lol

  37. Carolyn
    May 1, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    The Medicare supplement people are driving me crazy! The calls are recorded. I have tried to call the number back. Won’t work. I have 30 numbers blocked on my land line. About every three weeks I erase these and load 30 more.
    I realize we are discussing fraudulent phone calls but let me mention this. In the past on my computer I will get a website I didn’t ask for nor want. It says! DO NOT SHUT DOWN YOUR COMPUTER! Call this number for help getting rid of this website.
    Don’t do it! It’s a scam! I called one time thinking I had been hacked. The guy was Asian or some kind of foreign. He could not even speak good English. Shut down your computer. Boot it up again and check your firewall. There’s a million of them out there!

  38. Mary Fisher
    May 1, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    I’ve gotten the IRS scam multiple times. I know things are weird in DC now but if the US Treasury is so bad off it accepts ITune cards to pay off my tax debt, we’re all in trouble. Usually I post the scammer phone number on Facebook and invite all my friends to call back and tie up the lines. They eventually shut the number down but enough people have kept other victims from being harmed. And it’s funny as hell.

  39. Joyce rodgers
    May 2, 2019 at 2:53 am

    I get all kinds of crazy calls,I never answer scam calls.

  40. Jeff
    May 2, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    The National Do Not Call list is a JOKE.

  41. B.Eatchel
    May 4, 2019 at 10:25 am

    call your phone &get info how to block. On robo other un wanted I hang up & dial star tab 60 star again then #01 # I have blocked over 100 calls and life is less stressed now.betti

  42. Grendel
    May 5, 2019 at 12:32 am

    IRS Call:
    Oh there is a Federal Warrant on me? Let me check with the US Attorney here, we played golf last weekend.

  43. Mary
    May 5, 2019 at 3:28 am

    …you’re on the air!….:)

  44. Anne Peterson
    May 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    I got a call from a woman who left a message saying she did not appreciate getting calls from me. Yes, the thing that happened to me was that the caller used my name AND number which came up on her caller ID. When I called the ADA I believe, they told me there was nothing I could do about it. I did end up talking to the woman and letting her know I was not the caller.

  45. Bob
    May 13, 2019 at 12:53 am

    I received a phone call at 6PM on a Sunday night from a woman claiming to be from the legal department of a magazine service. She claimed I defaulted on a payment and owed $300 to be paid immediately. I could not get a word in edgewise, so I yelled out, “SHUT UP!”, and she said, “See you in court.” Since when does a business call at 6PM on a Sunday night?

    I should note I work for my county’s social services dept.’s Fraud Department, as the intake worker. I recognize BS immediately. My parents did not raise any fools.

  46. Jane
    May 13, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Being on the DO NOT CALL list is a joke.

  47. Anonymous
    May 14, 2019 at 12:10 am

    My son got a call from the Texas lottery telling him that he had won $6 million and all he had to do to collect was send them $6 thousand.he kept calling them just to screw with them and they didn’t like it.

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