Unfamiliar area code? It’s probably a scam.

thUnless you’re really lucky you’ve probably gotten spam/scam calls, often robotic ones. The smart money is on refusing to pick up the phone if it displays an unfamiliar area code (especially a toll-free one).

But if you have friends or family in places like Detroit (313), Houston (713) or Fort Lauderdale (954), you might pick up.

Those three cities are three of the top 10 area codes used by spam callers, according to a company called Whitepages. The others are:

Atlanta (404)

Eastern and Southeastern Pennsylvania (484)

Orlando (407)

Dallas (214)

Washington, DC (202)

Dallas again (972)

Birmingham (205)

A new toll-free area code, 855, is also showing up as a scam fave. 

Whitepages recently released an enhanced iteration of its free Caller ID app, which reveals area codes and features a spam identification system. Analyzing billions of calls, texts and phone lookups from its 50 million customers, the company gives consumers a better chance at avoiding unwanted communication.

“Many people fall victim to these phone scams because they’re receiving calls from area codes familiar to them, often times seemingly from their backyards,” says Bret Moore, vice president of products for Whitepages.

Note: I am not receiving anything for writing about this app. I just think it’s a good – and free! – tool for smartphone users. Time magazine thinks so, too, putting  Caller ID on its list of 50 Best Android Apps for 2014.

The IRS doesn’t call, it writes

That 202 area code is a matter of particular concern right now, as an “aggressive and sophisticated phone scam” is currently making the rounds, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Con artists are altering their phones to make it look as though they’re calling from area code 202, i.e., our nation’s capital. They’ve apparently bought lists from companies that sell consumer information, since they seem to know a lot about the people they call.

Here’s where the story falls apart: You’ll be told that you owe money and must pay it through a wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But people are falling for it, especially since the callers sometimes become “hostile and insulting,” and threaten “arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license.”

On the other hand, consumers are sometimes told they’re due a refund and asked for private information. Please know this: The IRS never calls to demand immediate payment and it always sends a letter first. Officers will never ask for debit or credit numbers over the phone. You also have the right to appeal any taxes you may or may not owe.

Recently one of these creeps called personal finance expert Liz Weston. Sadly, it landed in her voice mail: 

“Oh, the fun I could have had with this idiot! Here’s me, pretending to be all scared and upset…drawing him in, getting him all excited about the money he was going to scam from me…and then Boom! Telling him exactly what I thought of his morals, his conduct, his parentage and what bug he’ll be incarnated into the next go-round,” Weston wrote.

She called back and got a different “agent” than the one who’d phoned: “(He) told me that ‘complete audits’ of my tax returns from 2002 to 2012 had turned up ‘errors and miscalculations’ and that the government was going to the courthouse to file a lawsuit against me within two hours. When he demanded to know if I had a lawyer and I said yes, though, he didn’t seem to know what to say next, and hung up on me. So I didn’t get to unleash at all.”


Let it ring

Do spread the word about this IRS scam, especially to any family/friends with any cognitive impairment – or who are just getting along in years. The Federal Trade Commission reports that “older people may be targeted [for all scams] because the caller assumes they may live alone, have a nest egg, or may be more polite toward strangers.”

Lowlifes. I hope they all get bleeding piles.

Sometimes we late-adopters can avoid modern hassles. Specifically, those of us whose landlines have both caller ID and answering machines.

Here at Casa Cynical we don’t answer if the number displayed is unfamiliar to us. When the phone displays simply “incoming calls,” we wait — almost all the scammers hang up after three rings.

Very occasionally a robocall will leave a message, e.g., “we want to help you lower your credit card bill.” Which sounds pretty funny to a couple of frugalists who never carry credit card balances.

Even more rare is the call from someone we actually know who is either using another person’s cellphone or is calling from on the road. There’s a remedy for that, too: Start leaving a message and we’ll pick up.

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  1. Another person who does not answer if the number is not familiar.

  2. Tina in NJ

    We get a lot of calls from supposed charities. You know the type, where the name is similar to one you’ve heard of, but not quite. I figure if they’re spending donor money to cold call people, they can’t be putting too high a percentage of donations toward the actual cause they’re soliciting for.

  3. What does one do if no caller ID. my house phone company charges a FORTUNE for it, bundled w/several other ‘services’ of course, none of which do I wannt/need.

    • Punkin Pye

      If you can’t get Caller ID, I would simply inform all of your friends and family that you are having to screen all your calls for scams and solicitations. Apologize to them for the inconvenience and ask them to please start to leave a message and if you are there, you will pick up immediately. Trust me, you’ll get a lot of sympathy.

      If it’s not a personal call, anyone with legitimate business to conduct will leave a message and contact info. You might even record a message stating that all calls are screened and instructing them that you will pick up once they start speaking.

    • Donna Freedman

      When I lived in Seattle I didn’t have caller ID, either. I bought an answering machine for less than two bucks at the thrift store and let it take messages for me.

  4. I live in Japan so this is not an issue for me, but when I was living in the states I never answered any number that wasn’t familiar to me. I always felt if its important the person will leave a message. I do hate it when people just randomly call me for donations. I’d like to say that I’m nice when I do answer the phone and its a telemarketer, but I’m not….I just hang up.

    • Donna Freedman

      Telemarketers often hang up when they get the answering machine, but some do leave messages. I’m tired of explaining why I have only X dollars to give to good causes and that they’re already earmarked. One guy who I mistaken did answer the phone for kept saying, “But in the past you’ve given….” and “You know, even a $20 donation would be a big help.” All I can think is that they work on commission.

  5. Caller ID? I’m with Holly …too expensive in this neck of the woods. If I have the time and inclination I try to keep these clowns on the phone as long as I can by pretending to look for info…looking for a pen…pretending to be hard of hearing…6 minutes is the record for the longest. It can be fairly entertaining and if I have them occupied that leaves less time to go after someone else. I look upon it as my “civic duty”…

    • Donna Freedman

      In our case, caller ID was included as part of the deal. (And it’s not an expensive package, either.) I’ve told DF that if the IRS scammers call I’m going to do what Liz Weston wanted to do: Play along, be scared, say stuff like “But I don’t have a lot of money because I’m self-employed, will they really put me in jail?” and “Is there any way we could work out a payment plan for this?” and “Well, I guess I could take some money out of my retirement account — do you think that’s a good idea?”
      Just use up as much time as possible, although I wonder if I could get six minutes’ worth out of it…My hat is off to you, sir!

  6. lostAnnfound

    If we don’t recognize the telephone number on caller ID, we don’t answer the phone. Like you said, if it’s important and they really want to reach us, they’ll leave a message.

    Last month I got a bit of shock. The phone started ringing and when I looked at the display for caller ID info, it was MY name and MY Number! Kind of spooked me a bit, but a friend told me it was another way the scammers are getting people to pick up the phone.

    • Donna Freedman

      Weird! I’ve never had that happen.
      DF’s dad was targeted by one of those people who claim to be a child or grandchild, stuck somewhere and needing help. He knew instantly that the caller was not his son. Guess he wanted to have a little fun with the lowlife so he said, “If you’re my son, tell me some of the places we lived while you were growing up.” Believe it or not, the caller started throwing out names of big cities. Guess he hoped he’d luck out with one of them and the old guy on the other end of the line would say, “My son! How can I help you?”

    • I had that happened to me three times in the last few months. I wondered what was going on. Now I know. Thank you!

  7. Even if you don’t have caller ID, you can still let a phone call bounce to your answering machine. The other thing I do is, if you say “Hello,” and you don’t hear a “Hello” back right away, just hang up. I don’t have caller ID on the phone in the basement, so if I’m down there and the phone rings, I’m likely to pick it up.

    FWIW, the IRS scam tried to target us. The lowlife left a message on our answering machine. Too bad his strong foreign accent and badly mangled English gave him away. I posted it on my facebook account and urged people to spread the news far and wide.

    • Donna Freedman

      We do let ours bounce to the answering machine if it’s “incoming call” or a number that’s unfamiliar. Most of the spammers hang up after three rings or when they get the answering machine’s recorded message, thank goodness.
      Good for you for publicizing this scam. It’s appalling that people are being harassed and browbeaten over the phone by these people.

  8. Cathy in NJ

    These IRS scammers targeted my mother. They called her several times. As she is older, in her 70’s and a slow, careful walker Mom could not get to the phone quickly enough. So in all cases they left messages. The truly creepy and distressing call was when a different scammer left my mother a voicemail in a foreign language that she speaks. How did they know she spoke Russian? There is way too much personal information out in the internet about us. My mother does not have a computer, facebook or social media sites. Where did they find that data, from a US naturalization database?

  9. No caller ID here, either. Very few friends or family call the house phone, but some places, like the doctor’s office, will NOT call the cell phones, even when we’ve told them repeatedly…

    Sometimes, if I get a live person, I’ll say, “Please put this number on your company’s Do Not Call list. A few have agreed and thanked me. A few more have hung right up! lol

    The automated calls that really bug me are the ones that start speaking as soon as the pone is picked up. Their spiel is halfway over by the time the machine picks up. Most of them are spam calls, but our pharmacy does this too, and it bugs me no end. We’ve told them not to call, but they do it every time. Sigh.

  10. I have a smart phone (that I need for work) that displays all numbers. I don’t answer even if its a local number for two reasons. One I only have 500 minutes and two if it really is important and not family/friends I have programmed in they can leave a message and I will call back.


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