These days, I get so many spam calls I hardly pick up the phone anymore. However, if I see a call from someone I know, whether they’re a friend or family member, I, of course, answer them (usually). Unlike a random number, I know the person on the other end of the line, because I have their contact in my phone, right? Unfortunately, that’s not 100% true, and scammers are using that to their advantage.
Take this TikTok from creator Citylivingsoutherngirl, for example. In the video, the creator describes getting a phone call from her mum. The call came through as any other call would: Her mum’s contact popped right up, nothing nefarious or suspect about it. She answered the call, only to hear what sounded like her mother’s voice far away from the phone, and sobbing. A man’s voice then answered, and demanded money from the girl or else he’d kill her mother.
Of course, the creator was terrified, and eventually agreed to the demands. She talked the man on the phone down from a $US1,000 ($1,388) Cash App payment to $US100 ($139), and, after one failed attempt, she finally sent the money. When she did, he immediately hung up the call. She called right back, only to hear her mother on the other end, who was extremely confused as to why her daughter was so upset. It was, as you might have guessed, all a scam. What happened here?
Scammers can pretend to call you from a number you trust
It all comes down to something called “spoofing.” Spoofing is when someone manipulates the contact information that appears on your phone when they call you, to deceive you into thinking they are someone they’re not. They don’t have physical access to your mum’s phone, but if they have their number, they can “spoof” it, so that her number appears on your phone when the scammers are really the ones calling you.
Spoofing itself isn’t all that hard. You don’t need to be a hacker or know your way around smartphones and computers. Instead, you just need access to software that can handle the spoofing for you. You plug in the number you want to call, then the number you want it to show up as, and presto: You’re spoofed.
Unfortunately for scammers, spoofing does not allow you to choose the contact name that pops up when the call rings. If it did, we’d be in a world of trouble, with scammers calling everyone with emergencies calls from family members all the time. Because of this limitation, scammers not only need to know the number they want to spoof, they need to know the connection to you. The scammers who called Citylivingsoutherngirl must have known that the spoofed number belonged to the creator’s mother, so they could effectively run their scam.
Of course, not all scammers use spoofing to trick victims into handing over money. The latest trend is to call targets and claim you’ve kidnapped their children, while using fake voices of children in the background. In that case, the scammers can assume the identity of the kidnapper, and don’t need the victim to think they’re calling from someone else’s phone. However, they could, which would make the scam that much more believable. If a parent received a call from the child’s phone, and heard a voice claim to have kidnapped their child, they’d understandably panic.
It’s tough to fight against spoofing
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to necessarily prevent spoofing. You can practice good cybersecurity strategies, like keeping personal information off the internet, to reduce the risk of being targeted in such a scam. But if someone spoofs a contact’s number and calls your phone with it, that call is going to come through and appear as that contact.
If you do pick up the phone one day and think someone is off, the best thing to do is hang up, then call the contact back. If it was a spoofing situation, you won’t call back the scammers, only the legitimate number, in which case you’ll hear a confused contact on the other end wondering why you think they called you. If so, you can file a report with the FCC to try to catch the scammers (but don’t hold your breath).