Top phone scams and how to avoid them

That mobile phone that you carry around in your pocket brings you fast access to a galaxy of information and entertainment. Oh, you can make calls and text, too!

But with all the benefits, phones also are a handy way for scammers, schemers and stealers to reach you easily — and potentially rip you off. So while you’re tapping, you should also be taking care you’re not a thief’s next victim.

Some phone scams are as old as crime itself, while others are cooked up fresh to take advantage of the latest news. Scammers take advantage of our emotions — fear in some cases; greed in others. Some call in-person; others use robocalls.

But in any case, almost all phone thieves are either after your money or your personal information so they can steal your identity.

It pays to keep up on the latest dirty phone tricks and how to avoid them. Here are some of today’s top scams, as reported by the Federal Trade Commission and other experts.

COVID-19-related scams

The pandemic has spawned a new generation of scams. Some crooks offer to sign you up for vaccination or testing over the phone as a way to get your personal information. Others say they’ll help you get your government stimulus or unemployment checks — for a fee. Still others pretend to be loved ones or military service members who say they’re sick and ask you to wire them money. Fake COVID-related charities are also cropping up.


Scammers call pretending to be a police officer, an IRS agent, or a bank official and say you owe money. Often, the caller threatens you with arrest, jail or deportation if you don’t comply.


Someone calls claiming to be a political pollster or a Census Bureau worker and then starts asking for your personal information.

‘You’ve won!’

A caller says you’ve won the lottery, a vacation, or some other valuable item, and then asks you to pay a fee or provide your bank account number.

Financial offers

Scammers offer to help you get out from under your credit card debt or student loan obligations, or to lend you money even though you have bad credit, or to help you make a killing on an investment — if you’ll just pay an upfront fee.

(Getty Images)

Fake charities

Calls from people seeking money for phony disaster relief programs are especially common.

‘Grandma, I’m in trouble!’

In a scheme typically targeting seniors, someone pretending to be a grandchild or other loved one calls, says they’re in distress, and asks for money — “And please don’t tell Mom and Dad!”

So how can you defeat scam calls like these? Here are ways to help you ward off most attempts to rob you over the phone.

  • Never give a caller you don’t know your personal information, like your Social Security, credit card, or bank account numbers, or your usernames and passwords.
  • Don’t send cash to a stranger on the phone — including a wire transfer, a prepaid card, or a money-transfer app payment, which scammers love because it’s hard for you to get your money back. 
  • Place your phone number on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry either online at or by calling (888) 382-1222. Honest telemarketers that you haven’t done business with previously aren’t supposed to call you after that; those who do call may be scammers. (The registry does not block certain kinds of calls, such as from charities, debt collectors, and survey takers.)
  • Don’t feel pressured to do what a caller asks immediately. Take time to research what’s being offered and check out the organization offering it. If a caller pressures you for an immediate answer, say no.
  • If you get a call from someone claiming to represent a charity, hang up and check whether the group is legitimate via Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, or the BBB Wise Giving Alliance before donating.
  • If a robocall asks you to press a number on your phone, don’t. It might lead to more calls.
  • If a call is suspicious, just hang up.
  • Some experts advise that you shouldn’t answer calls from an unknown number. If it’s important and legitimate, the caller will leave a message on your voicemail — something many scammers won’t do. But be sure that you have any essential numbers — such as from parents, children, doctors — entered into your phone’s contact list.
  • Don’t always believe your caller ID. Scammers may use “spoofing” technology to make your phone think you’re getting a call from the government or some other legitimate source.

If you lost money in a phone scam, report it to the FTC online at or by calling (877) 382-4357. You should also contact your state consumer protection office. If someone does rip you off, call the police.

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