How Does My Phone Company Know a Call Is From a Scammer?

By: Francisco Guzman  | 

scam likely
Watch out for those scamming callers. T-Mobile/HowStuffWorks

Have you ever rushed across the room to answer your phone, only to see the call is from "Scam Likely," "Fraud Alert," "Potential Spam," etc.? You may not be excited to hear from one those "friends" but at least it alerts you not to pick up. Phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have alerted billions of their customers to potentially dangerous calls.

But how do these companies detect that a caller might be a scammer?

AT&T, for example, identifies nuisance calls through data analytics, network intelligence and customer reports, according to AT&T spokesman Dan Feldstein. "It could be a lot of calls from a single number, but always combined with other analysis. For instance, if a number is making multiple short-duration calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call List, that might be a red flag," he adds via email.

Feldstein says AT&T identifies two kinds of scam calls. If you see "Fraud Risk" on your caller ID, the number is associated with known scams or dangerous activity. If the caller ID says "Suspected Spam," the number is associated with unsolicited sales or promotional calls.

"AT&T has blocked or labeled more than 16 billion robocalls since 2016 [and] 6 billion in 2020 alone," Feldstein notes. Robocalls are automated phone calls that have a prerecorded message when you answer the phone. Although some are illegal, which is usually the case when someone is trying to get your personal information, others are legal. An example of a legal robocall would be one from a politician or charity.  

Feldstein says it's rare for someone to get their number labeled incorrectly, but if that does happen, you can report it here and AT&T will examine it promptly. Other carriers have similar systems.

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Dealing With Phone Scammers

There will be times when you get scam calls that aren't labeled as such. You can report those numbers to your phone carrier or to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). However, in order to report a scam number to the FTC, you must first add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry. Still, the FTC says your first defense is to hang up and block the number.

Also, be wary of your caller ID. Scammers can make a number look like it's coming from the U.S. government or your local area code when they could be in another country. This is called spoofing.

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If You've Been Scammed Over the Phone...

Scams come in many different flavors. The most common scams involve a caller saying something like, "You've been selected for a prize," or "You could be arrested if you don't pay your debt," or "This is the IRS/Social Security Administration. You owe us money." Know that a government agency is not likely to call you as a first contact . Instead, they'll send you a letter in the mail.

If you realize you just fell for one of the many scams out there, the key is to act quickly. Here's what to do, according to the FTC:

  • Contact your credit card company or bank if you paid with a credit or debit card. You can explain to them what happened and possibly reverse the charges. If you used a money transfer app to pay the scammer, contact the app company after you've called your bank.
  • If you gave the scammer your Social Security number (SSN), visit IdentityTheft.gov to see if your SSN is being misused.
  • If you gave a scammer a username and password, change it immediately. If you gave them remote access to your computer, update your computer's security software right away.

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